Achievement First wins approval to expand to 3,112 students in 10 years

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Achievement First has been given the go-ahead to more than quadruple in size over the next decade, overcoming an avalanche of opposition from teachers’ union leaders and some politicians in Rhode Island’s capital city.

The state Council on Elementary and Secondary Education voted 5-3 Tuesday to allow the Connecticut-based charter management organization to grow from 720 students in the current school year to 3,112 students in the 2026-27 school year

Council members Jo Eva Gaines, Colleen Callahan and Lawrence Purtill voted against the proposal.

Tuesday’s vote means Achievement First can move forward with a plan to allow students enrolled in its two existing elementary schools to remain with the organization through high school. The organization also plans to open another K-8 school that will ultimately feed into one high school.

But while the council’s approval means Achievement First is now eligible to serve 3,112 students, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza still has the final say over the organization’s ability to actually grow to that level. The organization’s board of directors, which is chaired by the mayor, has passed a resolution giving Elorza the power to block the full expansion if he determines it will have a negative impact on the city’s traditional public schools.

Elorza has said he is unlikely to support the full expansion unless Achievement First finds a way to help cover the millions of dollars Providence stands to lose from sending more students to charter schools, but he repeatedly said he wanted the council to approve the organization for 3,112 seats

Other politicians and union leaders were more firmly opposed to the expansion, largely because the state has said it could result in Providence losing out on up to $35 million a year because the state’s education funding formula requires the vast majority of per-pupil spending to follow the student no matter where they attend public school.

Prior to Tuesday’s vote, City Councilman Bryan Principe urged the council to “stop the siphoning of resources” from the city’s traditional public schools. He said Providence needs universal pre-K, smaller class sizes and better technology in the classrooms, but argued that the district is still showing improvement.

“Clearly there is great momentum with Providence public schools,” Principe said.

Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro, one of the most vocal critics of the expansion, accused Education Commissioner Ken Wagner of “devaluing, demoralizing and [showing] blatant disrespect” for the city’s teachers and students.

Calabro and other members of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals delivered a petition to Gov. Gina Raimondo this week that included more than 2,500 signatures opposing the expansion.

But many of the public hearings held on the expansion in recent months included passionate testimony from teachers, parents and students who praised Achievement First’s schools.

On Tuesday, a fourth grader at Achievement First told the council she wants to be the first female president of the United States with brown skin. She said what she learns at school “astonishes my family and friends.”

“I wish my cousins and friend that do not go to AF could come to AF too,” she told the council.

Continue the discussion on FacebookDan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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

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