Archive for April, 2011

SU Math Ed Alumni Newsletter Article

April 25, 2011

The following article will hopefully appear in the alumni newsletter of the Department of Mathematics Education at Syracuse University, where I graduated with an MS in Teaching and Curriculum in 2006.

RI’s Fair Funding Formula Gets an F

Soon after graduation and the birth of my baby girl, I returned home to Bristol, RI to raise her. Like most parents, my decision to relocate was based in part on the quality of education she would receive. Unfortunately, as my daughter prepares to enter kindergarten in the fall, the Bristol-Warren Regional School District (BWRSD) is about to undergo dramatic changes — for the worse.

Last year, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) created their first-ever educational funding formula, which reshuffled hundreds of millions of dollars across school districts. Dubbed the “fair funding formula”, it factored in student enrollment, student need, and the capacity to generate tax revenue in order to determine each district’s allotment. While a formula was obviously needed in the last place in the country without one, what we currently have is anything but “fair” since some districts, including BWRSD, are losing up to half of their state aid over the next ten years.

From a mathematical perspective, it’s difficult to call a formula fair when it ignores outliers and assumes factors for tax revenue generation capacity (i.e. wealth) and student need (i.e. poverty) are normally distributed within and across districts and around the same mean. These glaring statistical errors produced several strange results. Among the most counterintuitive was the negative effect that the poverty factor had on nearly every district in calculating the percentage of the state’s share of funding.

However, as bad as the math is, the philosophy behind the formula is worse. Nowhere does it account for costs unique to regionalized districts (such as capital projects and debt services) or for rising costs over time. But perhaps the biggest flaw is the belief that the current system is not underfunded and the formula should be revenue neutral. New slices from the same tiny old pie (only 28% of the RI budget is allocated to education – the lowest in New England) won’t suddenly make things right. As a matter of fact, quite the opposite could happen. While BWRSD and other districts begin slashing millions in services in the face of their dwindling budgets, Pawtucket and Woonsocket, two districts receiving extra money from the formula, are suing the state because they still aren’t getting enough.

So, how did the Ocean State wind up in such a mess? Well, if you were to ask members of the Bristol-Warren Parents’ Alliance, a community group I co-founded in response to the adoption of the funding formula, they would probably claim that RI is caught in the politics of a national reform movement which is more about business than education… And they’d have a lot of evidence to back them up.

School Reform or Deform?

Officials here received national acclaim for firing teachers in Central Falls and Providence en masse, lifting a cap restricting the number of charter schools per district, and for starting the first of possibly many Mayoral Academies, publicly funded regional charter schools run by private charter management companies. For its many efforts, RI was recently awarded a $75 million grant from the federal Race to the Top (RTTT) initiative. To some this may not seem too bad, unless and until they take a closer look.

While less federal and state aid is going to traditional public schools throughout the country, RTTT, tech industry elites and Wall Street bankers are pouring billions into charter management companies. Through various federal tax credits and interest payments on construction loans alone, “non-profit” charter management companies and their rich financiers are able to nearly double their investments in only seven years. Charter management companies also allow donors to retain a great deal of control over their money, meaning they can influence charter school expenditures.

By Wall Street’s own projections, the emerging digital education market will be at least $500 billion, most, if not all, off the backs of taxpayers. It’s another economic bubble waiting to be blown up by many of the same perpetrators of the housing and dot com busts. Even if charter schools were more effective than traditional public schools, the numbers just don’t work out.

Unfortunately, the findings of the most comprehensive studies on charter schools to date show that, with few exceptions, charters do not perform better than public schools. In fact, a large number actually perform worse. Charters have been known to hire non-certified, non-union teachers (whom they overwork and underpay), refuse special needs students and cut programs. What’s more, under-performing charters are often difficult to close. In other words, like many big corporations, they become beholden to their investors rather than their customers (a.k.a. our children).

Since charter schools suck up large portions of funding, even the few that are performing better are likely doing so at the expense of the traditional public schools in their districts. On top of that, charters can siphon away tax dollars by piggy backing on existing public infrastructure and they tend to keep only the best students.

Mathematics Educators to the Rescue!

The problems with the current school reform movement may at times seem innumerable, which is precisely why we need experts in both mathematics and education to help simplify the equation. Local funding should only be above and beyond what state and federal funding must provide for adequate education. Our system, which puts local districts on the hook for the majority of education spending, is what really needs to be reformed. Otherwise, it will continue to perpetuate educational inequity based on wealth.

Our background in mathematics education puts us in a unique position. We not only have the knowledge of educational philosophies but also the mathematical skills to determine the efficacy of any reform movement. With that in mind, I urge you to get involved in your community. Check out the references below to learn more, attend school committee meetings and let them know your concerns. There’s no need to “wait for Superman” when we can be heroes.


BWRSD Documents: Funding Formula Basics, BWRSD PowerPoint, 1/31/11; Talking Points for FY12 Budget Development handout, 2/9/11; Total 10 Year Loss to Bristol-Warren handout

Democracy Now! –

Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education

Education Week, Murdoch Dives Into Ed-Tech Market

Providence Journal, Reworking the formula for funding R.I. schools

RIDE Funding Formula Proposal: State Share Ratio Calculation Chart; Core Instruction and Student Success Model Chart; State Share Ratio for the Community Calculation Chart; State Share Ratio Calculation (Sending Communities Combined) handout