The Funding Formula: Considerations from Outside the Box
As the result of historical and civic inertia, the discussion over public education in Rhode Island often begins and ends with plans for shifting money between district-level bureaucracies, the assumption being that money can be sent across municipal borders, but students are inalterably trapped within them. But, especially in a state as densely populated as this one, there is no reason to limit the options in this way. And in some cases, allowing students to cross municipal borders might be the best way to help smooth out some of the inequalities in the Rhode Island public education system, helping some students to reach their full potential more effectively than a new “funding formula” ever will.
Here’s a specific example. According to the statistics compiled by Information Works and provided to the public at Barrington’s financial town meeting, in the 2006-2007 academic year, Providence’s Classical High School produced the second-highest number of Advanced Placement examinations scored at “college-level mastery” of any school in RI (Barrington was first, North Kingstown third). At the same time, the high schools in two of the towns bordering Providence, North Providence and Johnston, have poor track records for AP examinations, with just a single AP exam taken between the two systems. The demography of the urban ring does not explain this result. East Providence (29 AP exams passed at college level), Pawtucket (33 AP exams passed) and Central Falls (11 AP exams passed) all did better than the combined North Providence/Johnston total of one exam taken, and it is not reasonable to assume that there is no one with the ability or the desire to take AP classes living in North Providence or Johnston.
Now, if Rhode Island is moving towards a system where the state is going to be funding a greater share of public education, while some of the towns in the urban ring are unable for whatever reason to support advanced academic programs, then doesn’t it make sense to open some of Providence’s programs — especially given that Providence is a district funded largely by state revenue — to students from other communities in the state?
For instance, wholly consistent with the spirit of the regionalization that everyone is talking about these days, how about regionalizing Classical and allowing students from North Providence and Johnston who meet the entrance requirements have access? Or, if there is a concern that this might significantly reduce the number of Providence students able to attend Classical, allowing Classical to expand and establish a “satellite” campus that allows students from educationally underserved communities to have access to an advanced academic program?
Or perhaps North Providence and Johnston and maybe a few other communities could band together, to form an advanced regional high school of their own — but wait — I think I just backed into a version of Cumberland Mayor Daniel McKee’s “Mayoral Academy” proposal, except that Mayor McKee’s current proposal is focused on kindergarten through eighth grade, instead of high school.
OK, so maybe I didn’t back into this; maybe this is where I was headed all along, the essential point being that if Rhode Island allows one large community to have a special school — a school that is an asset to its community and its state — then why shouldn’t Rhode Island allow other special schools to be formed, either building on what’s here already, by using open districting to increase the reach of successful programs, or by trying new forms that cross town lines like the Mayoral Academies, and put the focus of education policy on good schools rather than on bureaucratic money shifting?