Public education in Providence comes to a fork in the road tonight as the state Council on Elementary and Secondary Education is scheduled to act on Achievement First’s controversial 10-year expansion plan.
If approved, the multi-state charter school would become responsible for educating more than 10 percent of all city public school students, growing from some 700 elementary school students to more than 3,000 ranging from kindergarten through high school.
Achievement First has so far been impressive in Rhode Island. It boasts a longer school day, much higher test scores and spends about $1,500 more per student (according to RIDE report: Achievement First $14,449; PPSD School Average $12,877). But nobody knows how such a large student exodus from traditional public schools would affect the district as a whole. AF would siphon more than $30 million away from other public schools in the city.
“This is a make or break issue for public education in Rhode Island,” said Frank Flynn, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, the Providence area teachers’ union that has long been organizing against charter school expansion in Rhode Island’s urban core.
The Providence City Council, the Providence School Board and many members of the Providence delegation to the General Assembly oppose the expansion. Mayor Jorge Elorza and the state Department of Education support it.
The seven member education council, appointed by the governor, gets to decide. That could happen as soon as tonight, but the board could also defer until after the holidays. Before they vote, each board member should make certain to read these five RI Future posts on the issue:
Providence School Board member Mark Santow articulated a common refrain about charter school funding in Rhode Island – that they necessarily pull resources away from the vast majority of public schools.
“Whatever benefit a couple thousand kids may get from this, it will come at the expense of 20,000 Providence kids and their families, and the thousands of young people in the future who will seek and are entitled to a public education here,” he wrote. “When we have a public school system that is over-burdened and underfunded, it defies common sense as well as common decency to siphon money from it to build a second, parallel and less accountable one.”
There’s lots of available research to suggest Santow is correct.
“Even if one accepts all of RIDE and RIIPL’s method and rationale for its fiscal analysis, the bottom line is that that all their calculations are derived from a single, early, clearly idiosyncratic study that overstates the positive achievement effects of AF compared to any other study I have subsequently found,” he wrote.
Sheila Resseger and Wendy Holmes suggest Wall Street special interests could be driving the glowing review. The “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,” they wrote. “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?”
While economic, analytical and political arguments against charter school expansion abound, before the state education council earlier this month were a long line of poor people of color from inner city Providence begging for more Achievement First schools, one after another testifying that AF had changed their lives.
But Santow also touched on a bigger picture argument against charter schools that perhaps doesn’t often get factored into political and social calculations.
“Charters may be publicly paid for, but they are always privately managed,” he wrote. “They are an example of the privatization of public services. Privatization undermines our sense of common purpose and public responsibility. It reflects a chronic sense of civic defeatism. It is a surrender to pessimism.”
While some have equated charter schools with civil rights, Santow says there are more effective ways of increasing justice and equality.
“When this state is ready to address child poverty, and housing segregation, and our regressive tax system, and a constitutional right to an equal and effective education, and the need for universal pre-K, I’m willing to listen to proposals like this,” he wrote.