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RI communities fear costs as over 10,000 students apply for charter schools

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The demand is clear: a lot of Rhode Island families want to send their children to charter schools, fueling one of the most contentious educational shifts in recent history.

More than 10,000 Rhode Island students submitted nearly 20,000 applications into a lottery this year for the chance to secure one of about 1,800 available charter school seats. That was up 11% from last year — offering a stark reminder that many families are seeking an alternative to traditional public schools.

The rising demand is fueling a debate both in Rhode Island and across the country that pits charter supporters in search of a better system against opponents who believe in improving what already exists.

Baked into the controversy is a glaring issue of cost, as Rhode Island municipalities – already grappling with inflexible budgets – are increasingly faced with the prospect of funding two competing school districts.  

“In Cumberland, the situation of mayoral academies was presented as a no-cost option to start a small school in Cumberland, and what it’s turned into is a very expensive second school system,” said state Sen. Ryan Pearson, a Cumberland Democrat who previously served on the school committee there. (Mayoral academies are a type of charter school.)

Charter school advocates acknowledge the funding challenges, but argue districts should change to meet the demands of the public, not the other way around.

“If a parent wants their child to be publicly educated at a charter school, then that’s how the public taxpayer dollar should be spent,” said Keith Oliveira, executive director of the Rhode Island League Charter Schools.

The dynamic is playing out in various communities across the state, including the cash-strapped capital city of Providence where Mayor Jorge Elorza has balked at the chance to expand enrollment at one of the city’s mayoral academies: Achievement First.

Elorza, a self-described progressive Democrat who also oversees Achievement First, has said he will not expand the number of seats until he determines it won’t negatively impact the city’s finances.

He points to a 2016 internal audit that showed the cost of expanding Achievement First enrollment to 3,112 students — up from about 1,100 now — by the 2026-27 school year could add $265 million to the cost of education.

To put that amount in perspective, it’s equal to two-thirds of the $394 million Providence has earmarked for all education spending this fiscal year, which represents more than half of the city’s total fiscal 2019-20 budget.  

“During this transition period, everything has to be on the table because the status quo is not working,” said Elorza’s spokesperson Victor Morente. The mayor has proposed closing a different charter school and giving its seats to Achievement First.

The reasons why costs are projected to soar are nuanced, but Pearson points to Cumberland where education expenses grow each time a student moves from a traditional school to a mayoral academy.

The per pupil price tag stays the same, he said, but because overhead costs at the traditional school – such as teachers and classroom expenses – don’t simultaneously disappear, the net cost to the town grows overall.

“Every time you add a kid in a charter you may be helping that student get a better opportunity, but the flip side is you’re directly harming the remaining students in the districts,” Pearson said.

Rhode Island lawmakers first authorized charter schools in 1995, and today there are about 9,000 students currently enrolled at Rhode Island’s more than 20 charters, which can open multiple locations under the same name. (There are more than 30 locations operating across the state). The biggest is Blackstone Valley Prep Academy, which serves Central Falls, Cumberland, Lincoln and Pawtucket.

Click on the school icons below to see where charter schools are operating in Rhode Island

In 2016, Pearson put together a report for the Senate, showing that if Rhode Island is serious about funding education at mandated levels, the continued growth of charter schools will add millions of dollars in costs.

Without change, he predicts the situation will play out in Providence.

“Providence has driven this topic back to statewide discussion and I think Mayor Jorge Elorza is 100% correct in his decision. He’s been criticized by some, but he’s completely right,” Pearson said.  

Critics of Elorza’s decision have argued he is giving too much weight to an entrenched and flawed traditional system that for decades has proven inequitable to poorer communities.

“If we’re talking about saving a district to enable them to operate in perpetuity – even if means generations of education are sacrificed in the process – we have our priorities wrong,” said Mary Sylvia Harrison, a longtime educator who most recently served as vice president for programs at the Nellie Mae Foundation.

Harrison is also a board member of YouthBuild Preparatory Academy Charter School, which is currently seeking a charter from the R.I. Department of Education. She helped create an after-school precursor of Times2 Academy in Providence, which later became one of the first two charter schools in Rhode Island in the late 1990s.

“The highest priority should be whatever it takes to have all kids achieve at high levels; not saving an idea of what a traditional district should look like,” Harrison added.

When asked about the financial challenges borne by communities because of the growth of charter schools, Oliveira argued it’s wrong to think the public funding inherently belongs to traditional schools.

“That presumes it was theirs in the first place,” Oliveira said.

Unlike some states with for-profit charter schools, Rhode Island charter schools are public. They maintain autonomy over curriculum, staffing and budget, but must demonstrate academic success in exchange for holding onto the state-approved charter, which is reviewed every three years.

Oliveira admits it’s unlikely charter schools will open at a pace that meets the growing demand, but expects it to ultimately force municipalities and state leaders to rethink how they fund school districts.

“Bottom line: the districts have to figure out how to restructure themselves,” he said.  

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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