PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A public policy think tank is recommending that lawmakers expand the number of charter school seats in Rhode Island, while also suggesting sending more money to traditional public school districts that lose students to charters.
The Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council made the recommendations Thursday after releasing a 32-page analysis of charter schools in Rhode Island.
The analysis shows that charter school enrollment has been increasing exponentially in the state, with the number of applicants far exceeding the number of available seats.
“Overall, charter public schools are producing improved student outcomes for students overall in the state,” Justine Oliva, RIPEC’s manager of research, said in a briefing with reporters. “Particularly for students that come from some of the most low-performing, high-poverty districts in the state.”
Oliva said the policy group decided to conduct the analysis because charter schools are at a “critical juncture,” with a proposed moratorium currently being considered by lawmakers on Smith Hill.
In February, the Rhode Island Senate passed a three-year moratorium on charter schools, citing concerns about the loss of money from “sending” school districts, since the money follows the student to the charter school.
“This legislation is about saving traditional public schools,” Sen. Maryellen Goodwin, D-Providence, said at the time. “It is about ensuring that the children in those traditional public schools aren’t left behind. Providing access to a quality public education – for all students, including those in our traditional schools – needs to be of the highest importance for us in the General Assembly.”
The moratorium would be retroactive, applying to six charter school expansions and new charters that received preliminary state approval last summer.
But Gov. Dan McKee, a longtime and high-profile supporter of charter schools in Rhode Island, has already said he would veto the moratorium if it reaches his desk.
The legislation is currently being considered in the House. A spokesperson on Wednesday said Speaker Joseph Shekarchi remains in discussion with interested parties about the moratorium.
The RIPEC report notes that half of the state’s charter schools are located in Providence, with 47% of charter students residing in the capital city.
But the school district that has lost the largest proportion of students to charters is Central Falls, where about a third of students attend charters rather than traditional public schools.
Looked at another way, 80% of all charter school students in Rhode Island hail from the urban core cities of Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls.
There are no charter school students from Newport, Little Compton or New Shoreham, according to the RIPEC report.
Parents have to apply to get their children into charter schools, which then hold randomized lotteries to select which applicants get seats. The “sending” school district must also provide the funding for the charter-enrolled student, though RIPEC notes districts can hold back a portion of that per-pupil spending for certain “unique” costs.
In order to address the structural budgetary concerns of school districts potentially losing scores of students to a charter expansion, RIPEC suggests the state could provide a transitional “glidepath” to the sending districts, similar to what is done in Massachusetts, providing more funds to the sending district rather than pulling back any funding from charter schools. (The influx of funds from the American Rescue Plan Act could be used for this, RIPEC suggests.)
While the report analyzes the comparatively higher standardized test scores at Rhode Island’s charters compared to students’ home districts, it does not delve into the methods that led to those scores. Some charter schools have been criticized for spending too much time teaching students to take standardized tests, resulting in higher scores.
Oliva said there are multiple theories for why charter students perform better on tests, including the use of longer school days, but RIPEC recommends leaders study the reasons behind the higher scores so the methods being used can be replicated at traditional schools.
On the other hand, RIPEC also recommends the R.I. Department of Education take more “rigorous action” to improve the lower-performing charter schools, or else consider revoking their charters.
The report says RIDE has never revoked a charter or denied a charter renewal, though it has placed conditions on renewals for lower-performing schools.
Charters serve a lower proportion of special needs students than traditional public schools, according to the report, and some of those students require expensive services. RIPEC recommends that lawmakers consider “dedicating a larger funding stream to high-cost special education” in order to address that disparity.