McKee, Senate leaders at odds over charter schools moratorium

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Lt. Gov. Dan McKee hasn’t even taken over from Gov. Gina Raimondo yet, but he is already at odds with top Senate Democrats over one of his longstanding policy priorities: charter schools.

The Senate Education Committee is scheduled to vote Wednesday on a bill that would block the creation or expansion of any additional charter schools in Rhode Island through the end of the 2023-24 academic year. The moratorium would apply to any charter approved since July 1, jeopardizing the plans of multiple schools currently planning to open.

The moratorium bill has a powerful group of sponsors: the five lawmakers listed on the bill include the top three Senate Democrats (Dominick Ruggerio, Michael McCaffrey and Maryellen Goodwin) and the current and past chairs of the Education Committee (Sandra Cano and Hanna Gallo).

Asked about the bill, Senate spokesperson Greg Pare noted that a similar measure was never voted on last year due to the pandemic, and pointed out that top lawmakers have been expressing concerns about charter schools for years now.

“There is concern about the current funding formula and the impact of charter schools on the resources of traditional public schools,” Pare said. “The moratorium would provide the opportunity to review the funding formula.”

The bill’s lineup of powerful sponsors, combined with the scheduling of a committee vote on it so early in the session, mark the charter moratorium as a clear priority for Senate leaders — putting them on a potential collision course with McKee, a Democrat who helped found the Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy system and has long been a champion of charters.

Andrea Palagi, a spokesperson for McKee, said the lieutenant governor “is open to a discussion on delaying new applications for a period of time to focus on strengthening all public schools and addressing the fiscal and learning loss challenges caused in all our districts by COVID-19.”

But Palagi emphasized that McKee opposes any moratorium which would block charters already in the pipeline — and as drafted, the Senate bill would apply to six approved in December by the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, three new schools and three expansions.

Palagi declined to say if McKee would veto the charter moratorium bill should it pass once he becomes governor. “The lieutenant governor will work with the General Assembly to protect all pending applications,” she said. “He will also engage in a discussion on the appropriate length of a moratorium on new applications.”

It’s unclear when McKee will succeed Raimondo, who was nominated earlier this month by President Biden to become the new U.S. commerce secretary. Pare said the looming transition in the governor’s office was not a factor in the timing of the moratorium bill’s consideration.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram

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