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The School Districts with the Most + Least Race to the Top Money

Friday, October 04, 2013


Rhode Island scored big when it won $75 million in federal Race to the Top funds for public education three years ago, but the amount of money that is being spent in local schools varies widely by district, according to new state data obtained through a public records request.

More than half of all school districts are seeing between $100,000 and $500,000 of those funds while top recipients are netting several million. Those receiving the most are the state’s most urbanized districts, including Woonsocket, Pawtucket, and Providence. In all, about $44 million out of the $75 million has been set aside for local districts and schools.

Click here for a complete breakdown of how much each district is getting.

Funds targeted to low-income districts and charters

The funds were not distributed on the basis of school population, local spending, or the state education funding formula. Instead, the funding was distributed on the basis of the federal Title I grant formulas, according to Elliot Krieger, a spokesman for the Rhode Island Department of Education. The formulas target money to districts and schools with high numbers of students from low-income families to help them “meet challenging state academic standards.”

That explains why a district like Central Falls is taking in $1.9 million—four times as much as Coventry, even though it has half as many students. Likewise, Newport and East Greenwich have roughly the same number of students, but the City by the Sea is receiving $641,089 while East Greenwich is due for just $237,628.

Just five districts have between one and approximately two million in Race to the Top funds: East Providence, Cranston, Central Falls, Warwick, and Woonsocket. Pawtucket and Providence topped the list with $4 million and $18.6 million, respectively.

The data also reveals that some individual charter and state-run schools are receiving as much, if not more than entire districts. For example, the International Charter School in Pawtucket is receiving $356,148—more than 16 school districts. A total $3.1 million is going to 18 charter schools and state-run schools.

“It is important to consider that our 17 charter public schools pull from districts around the state, therefore our schools’ populations may have varying concentrations of low-income students compared to any one sending district,” said Stephen Nardelli, the executive director of the Rhode Island League of Charter Schools.

The Race to the Top funding formula actually treats charter schools as independent school districts—technically, the term is Local Education Agencies, or LEAs in public education-speak. A RIDE spokeswoman said the department did “not have discretion to affect the amounts the LEAs receive under that federal formula.”

By and large, school districts appear to be satisfied with the amount of money flowing into local coffers, according to Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees and his counterpart at the Rhode Island School Superintendents Association, Tim Ryan. “Nobody’s said to me, ‘What happened to my Race to the Top grant?’” Duffy said.

How the money is being spent

In fact, one district, East Greenwich, even received a little more than it had expected when it signed on to the Race to the Top application, according to Jean Ann Guliano, who served on the school committee from 2006 to 2010. The issue, she said, is not how much the district is getting—it’s the restrictions on how it can be spent. “[S]pending was limited to RIDE’s strategic priorities—which were based on specific RTTT priorities. It has to be carefully tracked by the districts,” Guliano said in an e-mail.

It’s a complaint that one state union official said he’s heard from teachers too. “I’m hearing that there’s no allocation to public school districts that allows discretion and whatever allocations were made have strings attached,” said Jim Parisi, a field representative for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals.

Instead of issuing guidelines with room for local discretion, Parisi said spending had been directed by state authorities, leaving teachers little room to influence how the money is spent locally. “I hear that all the time,” he said.

But such restrictions and federal grants are a package deal—and that should be no surprise, according to Duffy. “There’s a certain inflexibility,” he said. “You have to adhere basically to what the grant says.”

And, in East Greenwich, despite such restrictions, Guliano said the district had been able to use the money to suit local purposes, which including the costs of substitute teachers.

Race to the Top funds can be spent locally for five purposes: aligning curriculum with statewide standards, measuring teacher effectiveness, professional development for teachers and administrators, instructional improvement systems, and school transformation and innovation efforts, state records show.

Money spent in those areas feeds into some of the biggest initiatives of state education officials—instituting a new teacher evaluation system, preparing students for standardized tests like the NECAP, and implementing the Common Core curriculum standards, according to Duffy. For example, the move to the Common Core requires both professional development for teachers as well as curricular changes, he said. Likewise, local principals and other administrators have had to receive training in how to properly use the new teacher evaluation system, according to Duffy.

But some wonder whether spending the money in those ways is really making a tangible difference in the classroom. According to a union-commissioned poll in the spring, 57 percent of teachers said districts had not benefited while 31 percent said they had.

“The most problematic aspect of this program is not simply that so much of the money has gone to consultants and outside vendors at RIDE (we can argue about whether this is the best use of that money or not; I do not think it is, but I could be wrong),” said education activist and former GoLocalProv columnist Aaron Regunberg.

“What is really disturbing is that this was not what RIDE sold to the state several years ago, when the public was imagining funding for programs that directly benefited students,” Regunberg added. “Rhode Islanders had images of local districts getting funding for literacy and math coaches, career counselors, personalization programs, and more. That was a bill of goods that had nothing to do with how the Race to the Top money has actually been used in our state.”

Stephen Beale can be reached at sbeale@golocalprov.com. Follow him on Twitter @bealenews


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