A Tale of Two Districts: Professional and student views on the education funding formula

Students of public Providence high schools Angel Cuin and Yalisse Rodriguez agree that their education should be a priority. Still, with the lack of resources dedicated to their schools, they do not feel it is. 

Cuin, a student at Classical High School, says, “One of the things we love to joke about is how poorly run our schools are. How dirty they look, how bad extracurriculars are, and everything like that. From the food to the teachers.” While Cuin sees students and faculty trying to improve the school, things like club funding, materials, and resources are not easily accessible. Rodriguez, a student at Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School, speaks about her own school’s extracurriculars, “The clubs are fun, I just wish there was more diversity that comes along with it.”

Ella Schweier is another public school student in Rhode Island, but she attends Barrington High School. When discussing Schweier’s education and experiences, she says something that catches your (or one’s) attention, “We have many, many extracurriculars. Really something for every person and anything you could really want.” 


She also mentions that all of the clubs and in-school textbooks and materials are funded by the school, unlike Classical which has most of its clubs run and funded by its students. Dr. Jorge Alvarez pairs with the Boys and Girls Club to bring clubs to the students, which are also primarily funded by the Boys and Girls Club. 

When you first hear this, it would seem that Barrington Public Schools get more funding than Providence Public Schools. However, the truth is that Providence’s per-pupil spending as of 2021 was $22,545 and Barrington’s was only $16,369. This leaves more questions than answers. 

State Senator Sam Zurier summarizes the complex equation that computes how schools get funded, “The state funding formula has three basic components: the first one is what is the cost to educate the average student in Rhode Island. Then there are adjustments based on certain types of special needs, and then there is a decision on how to balance that cost between local and state government.” 

Approximately one-third of Providence students need ESL support. That’s 33% English-second-language learners compared to Barrington’s 2%.

When it comes to multi-language learning (MLL) students, State Senator Sam Bell says, “We need to do a much better job at addressing the obstacles and burden that learning English poses to education and the added cost. I don’t think the current formula does enough.” Bell also notes that “It takes resources to address these language issues.” He is proud of the work and advocacy various communities in Rhode Island have done, even though it is apparent there is only so much citizens can do. 

Erlin Rogel, president of the Providence School Board, agrees with Bell and elaborates on why he believes the funding for MLL students is not where it should be, “MLL education right now is funded through a categorical mechanism, it is not included in the core funding formula. Which is different from other states around us, like Massachusetts.” Thirty other states have dedicated more funding for English language learners in per-pupil spending.

Zurier mentions that we make adjustments to our funding formula based on children with specific needs. By federal law, it is required that all students, including those with special needs, receive an appropriate education. Other states have a different way of funding those who need different accommodations. 

“The normal practice among other states is to take the basic student amount and multiply it by some fraction, usually between 10 and 20 percent, and add that to the budget to educate the child,” explains Zurier. “What Rhode Island does instead is it creates this thing called a categorical pool.” He describes this pool as something others put money into and each school district takes their share of money out of the pool. These pools are small and only kick in when “special education costs exceed a certain threshold.”

Bell notes that while children with special needs do earn some money, not necessarily enough, for their schools, children with physical disabilities aren’t getting anything close to what they need in terms of funding. When asked what he believes could change this issue for students with both physical and learning disabilities, he jumps to respond, “Oh, I believe personally that this is all unconstitutional. One of the unique things about the Rhode Island constitution is [that] we have special protection for people with disabilities against discrimination. And in my opinion, that means that we need to fund exactly the whole cost of their additional education.” Bell brings up some other crucial issues when it comes to special education students, including how the funding formula is only concerned with high-cost special education even though there are some students who don’t meet that definition, yet still need extra support. 

Some things our representatives said they would like to change about our funding formula were both realistic improvements and things that should have been a part of the formula since the beginning. Bell said, “In my opinion, it is truly –” he takes a moment to find the words to describe the system that educates our students – “a serious fundamental injustice that we have students living in a poor community who get less money for education than students in a wealthier community.”

Rogel looks more into the students’ and staff’s points of view when it comes to some things our education system could benefit from. He says, “Things I’d like to look at are like teacher-to-student ratios, how many students are being taught in a class, how much class attention is the student receiving, are they being set on paths towards independence or on paths to be successful.”

For us to understand exactly what students need and what we need to work on involving education, we asked the students: What do you need, and what does education mean to you? 

Cuin talked about his experiences with clubs at his school and how they aren’t funded nearly enough, some not at all. He spoke passionately about his Japanese III class and the fundraiser he and a close friend of his had to put on in order to buy the textbooks needed. They put on a traditional sakura fest and bought everything to put it on and successfully raised the money they needed. These students were so passionate about Japanese culture that they were happy to give themselves another year in the language. 

Rodriguez talks more about the materials and the mental health services she believes she deserves at her school. She notices that there is a lack of things such as printing paper, pencils, markers, etc, the things most of us don’t think twice about when we use them and some of these students have to buy their own. She also believes there is a lack of counselors and other types of mental health support at school. That’s not the fault of the staff themselves, but is indicative of the limited number of people they can hire for this role. Rodriguez knows that the school is trying its best to prepare its students for the real world but also knows there’s much more to be done.

Many of our Rhode Island students not only need a better education, they want a better education. There is so much these kids want to accomplish and we must give them the materials, space, and support that they need to go forward in their education and give them the future they deserve.

Kai Brown is a student at a local high school and an intern at Motif.