We know that the Achievement First charter chain, with schools in N.Y. and CT as well as R.I., wants to expand its mayoral academy in Providence, and the decision to deny or allow this expansion is to be made soon. In a way, this is Rhode Island’s version of Massachusetts’ Question 2, the proposal to lift the state’s cap for charter schools that was resoundingly defeated by Massachusetts voters, despite millions of dollars having been spent on ads by out-of-staters determined to get it passed.
Rhode Island voters have no opportunity to weigh in on this, as it is mainly Providence’s problem, but it may nevertheless become a milestone in the state’s drift toward educational privatization. Despite the serious misgivings of the Providence City Council, the Providence School Board, the superintendent, the teachers’ union, and the mayor, state Education Commissioner Ken Wagner is pushing for expansion.
Providence’s Internal Auditor estimates that the district public schools will lose between $28 and $29 million annually by the time Achievement First reaches full enrollment under the expansion plan. Commissioner Wagner disregards this analysis and also disregards the analysis of his fiscal advisors at RIDE, who estimate that the Providence district will lose $35 million–$8 million from the city and the remainder from the state–on the grounds that “Providence can expect massive increases in lifetime income for each child enrolled at Achievement First, a large positive return on investment, and a further narrowing of the opportunity and achievement gaps.” With higher test scores, Wagner’s story goes, come more college applicants, more college graduates, and more high-paying jobs. More students attending Achievement First “will cumulatively generate between $590.6 million and $727.3 million in mean lifetime earnings.”(this quote from http://www.providencejournal.com/news/20161202/ri-commissioner-approves-full-expansion-of-achievement-charter) If they stay in Providence, that is, if jobs are available in R.I, and if standardized test scores are a reliable index of future success–something by no means proven!
Wagner’s discussion of the fiscal benefits of Achievement First expansion is based on a very recent analysis by Brown University’s Rhode Island Innovative Policy Lab, spearheaded by Justine Hastings, who has declined requests for interviews. Hastings is a member of the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors and her work in the past has been funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which promotes school choice. Rhode Islanders may remember that the same (Enron alum) John Arnold was a big contributor to Governor Raimondo’s political campaigns and a fan of the pension “reforms” that cost R.I. retirees their COLAs and gave huge fees to hedge funds. Why does Wagner give credence to this particular report? And will the governor-appointed State Board of Education members dare to reject the governor-approved message from the governor-appointed messenger?
Rosy projections of the potential lifetime earnings of AF grads have little to do with the majority of students in or entering Providence district schools over the next ten years. What about the students who won’t enter or win the charter lottery? What about the already underfunded schools that will suffer further cuts in programs and personnel because of the Achievement First expansion? Isn’t this what the fiscal impact statement is supposed to address? Concern for all public school students, not only those attending charter schools, was Elizabeth’s Warren’s major emphasis when she spoke out against Question 2 in Massachusetts. The same concern is central in the recent NAACP Moratorium to halt all charter school expansion until certain safeguards are in place and we can be sure that “public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system.” (This quote from http://www.naacp.org/latest/statement-regarding-naacps-resolution-moratorium-charter-schools/)
Wagner believes that Achievement First expansion will benefit all Providence students. He claims: “More than 60 percent of Providence students–nearly 15,000 students–are enrolled in a school that has been identified for many years as in need of dramatic improvement.” He believes that Achievement First will make things better for 3,000 of the 15,000 in lousy schools and it’s too bad about the other 12,000 whose schools will get even lousier with diminished resources. Wagner is careful to say “Mayor Jorge Elorza and Superintendent Maher are making progress” and “Providence teachers are dedicated professionals” but he clearly has no confidence in this progress, the teachers, or their plans for the future: “If one is opposed to the Achievement First proposal, what is the alternative plan for the children of Providence?” The commissioner has put his faith in the privatized path. He has no alternative plan and, apparently, no faith in anyone else’. He should have no problems with the Trump/DeVos regime that will soon be upon us.
Unless otherwise indicated, quotations are from Commissioner Wagner’s “Achievement First will benefit Providence,” Providence Journal, Dec.6, 2016
R.I. School for the Deaf
Emerita Professor of Art History
University of R. I.