RIPEC: State needs to boost educational funding for multilingual learners

Updated at 2:18 p.m.

PROVIDENCE – With the rise of multilingual learners in Rhode Island’s K-12 public school system, the state needs to increase education spending to help districts better serve this growing population, the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council said in its policy brief released Thursday.

RIPEC is proposing a 70% increase that would add an estimated $11.8 million to benefit multilingual learners.

“Rhode Island is behind the curve when it comes to funding for multilingual learners,” said RIPEC CEO and President Michael DiBiase. “The dollars simply haven’t matched the growth in this student population, and despite substantial increases in state funds appropriated for the current fiscal year, Rhode Island still trails its neighbors and the nation by a wide margin. Multilingual learners make up a substantial and rapidly growing portion of our students, so the improvement of public education in Rhode Island hinges on their success.”

The percentage of multilingual learners in Rhode Island has also grown 62.8% since 2015, according to RIPEC. Of the 15,620 multilingual learners across the state, 90% are in 10 school districts and 50.6% of that student group are in Providence schools.

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RIPEC found the state had no separate state funding for multilingual learners until fiscal year 2017, where categorical funding was based on 10% of the state share of the per pupil core instructional amount but was subject to appropriation, resulting in low levels of per pupil spending until fiscal year 2023.

Among 31 states and Washington, D.C., that use a percentage of pupil instruction cost for funding, Rhode Island has the fifth lowest percentage, according to RIPEC. The current 15% per pupil the General Assembly approved for fiscal year 2024 is well behind the national mean of 40%.

RIPEC recommends the General Assembly conduct a comprehensive review of the funding formula for education. The council said the state education funding formula has been affected by a patchwork of multiple, complicated changes adopted over several years that resulted in inequitable funding allocations, where the wealthiest districts received the largest per-pupil percentage increases. The formula has not operated as intended for the last three fiscal years and needs reform, RIPEC said.

Rhode Island’s fourth and eighth grade multilingual learners trail the nation in math proficiency, while non-multilingual learners are roughly on par with their peers nationally, according to RIPEC. Wide achievement gaps were also found among Rhode Island’s school districts as well. Some of the districts with the state’s worst outcomes for multilingual learners have the highest number of this student population, limited economic resources and spend the lowest amounts per pupil.

In its brief, RIPEC recommends that funding for multilingual learners should be incorporated into the spending formula, adding that funding for those students should be allocated as discretionary funding rather than through categorial funds allocated on a reimbursement basis.

The council also recommended funding for multilingual learners should be based on the most recent student data and collection should be improved. If the growth of multilingual learners continues at the current pace, there will still be a lag in funding until the most recent student counts are incorporated.

(UPDATE: Corrects RIPEC proposing 70% increase in spending for multilingual learners.)