R.I. Senate leadership eyes school funding reform

SENATE PRESIDENT Dominick J. Ruggerio wants the General Assembly to reform state funding for Rhode Island school districts. / PBN FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO

PROVIDENCE – Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, D-R.I., and newly elected Majority Leader Ryan W. Pearson, D-R.I., say their primary focus in the upcoming General Assembly session that begins Jan. 3 is changing the way the state funds public school districts.

“We’re focused primarily on education this year,” said Ruggerio, who was joined by Pearson in his Statehouse office on Tuesday. “There were things last year that were left on the table.”

Among the changes they hope to see in the near term is a comprehensive program establishing universal pre-Kindergarten. Ruggerio said a group of senators is currently drafting legislation to be introduced early in the next legislative session.

“That’s an important part of what we are looking at,” he said. “Getting children in school a lot earlier than previously.”

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Ruggerio said the change would not only help Rhode Island schoolchildren’s educational prospects but also their parents, who often struggle with the rising costs of child care and juggling work with transportation.

“It’s an expensive proposition. But I think, ultimately, it will be a rewarding proposition,” he said.

Ruggerio would also like to see greater mental health funding for teachers, an issue that has been made worse by the pandemic.

“Obviously, there is a need for [educators] to have some mental health guidance or assistance if they have issues,” he said. “We don’t want to lose our teachers because they are at a premium right now.”

As former chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Pearson is well versed in the state’s school funding formula, which he characterized as outdated and “arbitrary,” last amended in 2010 and implemented in 2012.

“We have not meaningfully amended it or addressed it since,” Pearson said. “The needs of students have changed, and the costs of things have changed.”

Pearson said additional funding should be targeted partly toward multilingual learners, a demographic whose numbers have continued to rise. And many students – approximately 10,000, according to Pearson – are left out of the current funding regime due to misclassification.

“We need to make sure [the formula] captures all of these students across the state,” he said.

Senate leaders plan to take a hard look at the overall share the state pays to local municipalities and will look at instituting a recurring increase, rather than a one-time allocation as was done during the pandemic, in which local districts were given between $40 million to $50 million.

“There are some communities that have never been able to meet their obligations,” said Pearson, who acknowledged that changing the formula may be a significant legislative hurdle.

House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi recently told Providence Business News he does not support changing the funding formula next year.

“It’s an important issue to tackle this year,” said Pearson. “And it’s a tough sell if you don’t know how to sell it right.”

And having a projected $610 million budget surplus could help win over converts, he said.

“Every community will win,” Pearson said, “because every community will get more [funding]. It’s a unique year when you have the ability to maneuver with that kind of money.

“Student needs have changed,” Pearson added. “This would be something where we are adding more resources to the pot.”

Christopher Allen is a PBN staff writer. You may contact him at Allen@PBN.com. 

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