Funding for Multilingual Learners in RI’s K-12 System

PROVIDENCE, RI – The Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) today released a policy brief analyzing funding for multilingual learners in Rhode Island. The brief highlights three main findings:

  1. Multilingual learners are a rapidly growing student population heavily concentrated in a small number of school districts.
  2. Student outcomes for multilingual learners in Rhode Island trail the nation, and districts with the highest numbers and concentration of multilingual learners have some of the worst outcomes.
  3. Rhode Island has been slow to respond to these changing demographics with adequate funding and trails both neighboring states and the nation by a significant margin.

“Rhode Island is behind the curve when it comes to funding for multilingual learners,” said RIPEC President & CEO 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.”

RIPEC found that the number of multilingual learners in Rhode Island has increased 62.8 percent since 2015 and now make up 12.5 percent of students overall. Multilingual learners are heavily concentrated in a few districts; over 90.0 percent attend school in just ten districts, and Providence alone accounts for 50.6 percent of the state’s multilingual learners.

RIPEC also found that Rhode Island’s multilingual learners perform poorly compared to their peers nationwide in math and have very low levels of proficiency in both math and reading. Among Rhode Island districts, there are wide achievement gaps, with the worst outcomes in those districts with the highest numbers and concentration of multilingual learners.

Rhode Island has been slow to address this growing student population with adequate funding solutions. Rhode Island had no separate state funding for multilingual learners until FY 2017. From FY 2017 until FY 2023, categorical funding was based on 10.0 percent of the state share of the per pupil core instructional amount, but was subject to appropriation, resulting in low levels of per pupil spending. In FY 2024, the General Assembly removed the appropriation cap and increased the factor for multilingual learners to 15.0 percent, which led to a near quadrupling of funding ($16.8 million to districts). However, Rhode Island still ranks 28th (fifth lowest) out of 31 states and Washington D.C. that use a similar funding mechanism. Rhode Island also trails significantly behind Connecticut and Massachusetts (by $1,100 and $1,060 per student, respectively).

Based on this analysis, RIPEC offers the following recommendations:

The factor for multilingual learners should be raised. The General Assembly should increase the factor for multilingual learners to at least 25.0 percent.

Funding for multilingual learners should be incorporated into the state funding formula. Multilingual learners benefit not only from specialized services that qualify for funding under RIDE’s grant reimbursement process, but also are most likely to thrive when the general educational environment is strong for all students.

Funding for multilingual learners should be based on the most recent student data. The current lag in student counts (currently two years) results in an undercounting of multilingual learners and consequently a shortfall in state funding.

Data collection and reporting should be improved. Improving equity in funding requires that districts provide timely and accurate reporting of expenditures on multilingual learner programs.

There should be a comprehensive review of the funding formula for education. Funding for multilingual learners should be included in a larger conversation about education spending. The formula has not operated as intended for the last three fiscal years and needs reform.

An executive summary is here.

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