I recently attended and testified at the public comment hearing for the Achievement First Mayoral Academy proposal, organized by the Rhode Island Department of Education and held at Cranston City Hall on May 26. I expected spirited testimony both for and against the proposal and I wasn’t disappointed.
What did disappoint, however, were the many misconceptions and questions regarding how Achievement First Mayoral Academy would be funded - not because I was disappointed in the commenters themselves, but because I was reminded that everyone involved in education policy needs to do a better job explaining to the public how our new school funding system, passed just last year, works.
Under the old system, one of the most antiquated in the nation, municipalities effectively received block grants from the state loosely based on enrollment numbers from the 1990s. If a district’s enrollment increased, or if its student population had grown poorer and more at-risk, the district was left to do its best to bridge the gap with local property tax dollars. On the other hand, if a district lost hundreds, even thousands, of students, the state continued to pile money on its empty seats.
Cranston falls in the first category. Over the past decade, Cranston both gained students and saw a 43 percent increase in the percentage of its students eligible for Free or Reduced Price Lunch while receiving minimal increases in its state funding.
Something had to be done and last year, finally, state leaders including Mayor Allan Fung, Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello and Senator Hanna Gallo worked tirelessly and effectively to create and pass the state’s new school funding policy. The Cranston City Council backed their efforts with a resolution in support of the policy. It is fair, equitable, and great news for Cranston, Providence, and many other Rhode Island communities.
When the policy is fully phased in (something that can’t happen soon enough) it will mean more than $10 million in additional state dollars for Cranston students and more than $25 million for Providence students.
Here’s how it works. There are only two variables: where your child lives and whether he or she lives in a low-income family eligible for Free or Reduced-Price Lunch. These two factors determine how much funding the state provides the child. Local tax dollars provide the rest. The entire per-pupil amount follows the child to the public school he or she actually attends. Imagine that: no more funding of empty seats.
Not one penny of a Cranston child’s per-pupil funding will go to Achievement First Mayoral Academy unless she goes to Achievement First Mayoral Academy. The per-pupil expenditure in Cranston will go from approximately $14,000 where it is today to over $15,000 as a result of the new system, and not a single penny of that will be reduced by the proposed Mayoral Academy, regardless of how many students attend it.
The same goes for Providence, whose students will bring their own funding to the Mayoral Academy, if they choose to, at no expense to Cranston taxpayers.
Indeed, if no Cranston families decide to send their child to Achievement First, then no Cranston tax dollars whatsoever will go to it. This is one of the great advantages of new public school options in a system where funding follows students to the public school they attend.
What about non-educational costs? Will Cranston Public School District pay for food service at the Mayoral Academy? No. Transportation? No. Special Education services? No. Information Technology? No. Facilities costs of any kind? No. Under the new school funding system none of these costs will be paid by districts – they are covered within the simple per-pupil revenue that Achievement First receives.
This is the new, smarter system: fair, equitable, empowering for parents, efficient for taxpayers. In communities that embrace public school choice it works extraordinarily well, for everyone.
Maryellen Butke is the executive director of RI-CAN: The Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now. She was also the co-founder of Rhode Island is READY, a grassroots advocacy group which worked to pass a fair funding formula.