Funding and Resources
Across the nation, school personnel costs account for between 80% and 85% of all school spending. Education is a labor-intensive industry. While money buys materials and sports equipment and building maintenance, it mostly buys people's time and expertise — teachers, principals, secretaries, and janitors. Salaries, healthcare, and pensions are by far the largest portion of school expenditures. For the most part, these costs are fixed. So while the amount of money available for each student matters, how the money is spent matters more.
Schools and districts make choices as to what mix of personnel they use in their strategy for success. Some personnel strategies pay off better than others, so School Improvement Teams occasionally shift priorities. A change in student demographics might require different investments. As long as changes in strategy are in the best interests of the children, it's good to experiment with improving the personnel mix.
Personnel costs become controversial when costs seem to serve adults at the expense of children. Also, with the pressure to spend on personnel, schools commonly run into difficulties with deferred maintenance. Routine upkeep costs much less in the long run than major repairs. Again, when major repairs become unavoidable, this is money that comes from services to children.
Perhaps most troubling about education funding is the inequity among communities as to how much is available to spend on each child.
Funding equity is an issue throughout the United States, except in Hawaii which has a single school system, without districts. Rhode Island has serious funding inequities. In 2013, Rhode Island's per-pupil expenditures ranged from just over $27,000 to just over $12,000 — not counting Block Island where, for example, every ingredient for school lunches needs to be flown or ferried to the island.
In 2010, the Legislature passed an education "funding formula," joining the other 49 states, at last.
So, after 15 years of state-level funding of students without a formula, Rhode Island began to implement a funding strategy devised by experts at RIDE and Brown University. In every state, these formulae are complex and controversial. Many states tweak their formulas often in response to taxpayer groups and educational needs. By contrast, Rhode Island's new formula is relatively simple, placing most of the "weight," or additional funding, on students whose families live in poverty. This is an objective measure, proved by the tax information that families present to enroll their child in federally-subsidized lunch programs. Historically, we know that, for example, giving extra weight to special education or English language learners can act as an incentive to inflate the number of students in those programs and to keep them there. However, there are categories that do receive extra dollars according to a formula — like early childhood and vocational education.
The perfect per-pupil expenditure is the one that reliably accomplishes the job of educating the child in the most efficient way. The key features of a formula are: Fairness to each child; Fairness to each community's ability to raise tax dollars for educations; and funding predictability for schools and districts. No state has figured out how to calculate a perfect funding formula.
For a much fuller picture of funding formulae in general, and Rhode Island's in specific, see the Funding Formula FAQ (pdf).
Uniform Chart of Accounts
As of the 2010-11 school year, every Rhode Island school and district has been sharing the same accounting codes in their financial systems. Called The Uniform Chart of Accounts (UCOA), this financial coding system standardizes how every dime is recorded, as it flows through our public-education system. Especially over time, it will greatly improve our ability to compare expenses and investments across districts.
Strategies, educational and fiscal, can be quite different depending on the community and the students they serve. So, all advocates for Rhode Island's children need reliable and user-friendly access to specifics about how tax dollars are supporting specific populations and communities.
Are schools' choices paying off in high student performance? Do certain financial investments support a safer, warmer school climate? Compared with other schools, is this school adequately supporting building maintenance? Digging into UCOA's rich detail helps us form conclusions and inform decisions.
UCOA is an enormous database. InfoWorks provides high-level district and statewide UCOA data, along with a comprehensive UCOA Advanced Report that has several interactive charts and sortable tables to help you explore the data.