In response to a devastating assessment of Providence Public Schools, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green will intervene in what researchers at Johns Hopkins say is one of the most dysfunctional school systems in the country.
With unsafe buildings, chaotic classrooms, low teacher morale, and terrible student outcomes, the district needs comprehensive systemic change.
Here’s an idea: shift spending decisions directly to schools.
Rhode Island’s student-based funding formula provides additional dollars to districts based on their number of low-income students, but that doesn’t guarantee that districts will distribute those funds in the same way. While Providence spends over $17,000 per pupil, our research shows that the neediest students in the district aren’t getting their fair share. An ongoing study by Edunomics Lab finds that the average low-income elementary student in Providence attends a school that gets $613 less per pupil (an average of nearly $300,000 less per school) than schools attended by non-low-income students.
Many large urban school districts facing similar challenges — albeit not so severe as those in Providence — have adopted student-based allocation (SBA) as part of systemwide improvement strategies. Atlanta, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Baltimore and other districts across the country allocate dollars to schools based on the number and type of students to better align funding with student needs, boost transparency, and put principals in the driver’s seat on school budgets.
According to the assessment, principals in Providence find it difficult to exercise leadership of their schools. They say they are “held accountable for results that they have neither resources nor authority to influence.” This is especially worrisome since research indicates that principals are critical to student learning and top-down mandates can waste scarce resources. And research shows principals generally believe they can get better outcomes with the dollars at hand when given this flexibility.
Decentralizing spending decisions to schools would solidify school-level ownership over resource use and priorities for improvement. Giving principals, who understand the needs of their students and teachers, more power over budgets and staffing decisions would allow them to align spending with school priorities. Where those choices bump up against labor contract provisions, schools should make their case for more flexibility.
When principals, rather than the district, weigh tradeoffs for their schools, they are more likely to engage the community, factor in what matters most for their students and staff, and communicate the rationale for the compromise alongside a plan to mitigate any downsides. For example, a principal may decide not to replace a retiring vice principal, but instead keep a librarian to help boost reading scores. Parents and teachers trust their principals more than they do the district, thus principals can often garner support for tradeoffs that the district can’t. Given the urgent need for bold action in Providence, it will be important to maximize principals as trusted messengers to gain community understanding and buy-in on what are sure to be difficult changes ahead.
Decentralizing funding can also help cut through layers of bureaucracy and confusion about authority, another issue raised in the report. With an SBA model, expenses for central services or shared costs (like transportation) are clear for all to see. This enhances trust in the district financials, and helps schools see what’s at stake.
Chancellor Infante-Green has smartly engaged principals, teachers, parents, and others on reform plans. Continued engagement will be critical to progress and success. Empowering school leaders to decide how resources are prioritized at their schools can help bring parents into the process, better support teachers and, most importantly, deliver the high-quality education that all of Providence’s students deserve.
This column was co-written by Hannah Jarmolowski, a research fellow at the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. It originally appeared in the Providence Journal.