PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Groups of students, parents and teachers gathered Wednesday at the State House for a hearing on a bill that they fear could upend career and technical education programs.
The bill, proposed by several superintendents including Warwick Superintendent Philip Thornton, would address what supporters call “inequities” in the school choice program that lets students go to a school outside their district for certain programs.
The money follows the student in these cases, and Thornton says his district is paying $1.4 million this year to send 86 students out of district.
“Districts are actively recruiting students from other districts when, in many cases, the programs exist in the home district,” Thornton’s spokesperson wrote in an email to Eyewitness News.
The bill would require the state to reimburse districts for 50% of the cost to send a student to another district for a vocational program. It would make clear that students can’t switch districts if a similar program is offered in their own district, and it would also direct the Rhode Island Department of Education to rate the quality of programs and “discontinue” some programs if they are duplicated at one of the regional career and technical education centers in the Chariho, Coventry, Cranston, East Providence, Newport, Warwick and Woonsocket school districts.
Hannah Conlon, a sophomore in the Future Farmers of America program at Narragansett High School, said she fears the program could be eliminated at her school because it is offered at one of the regional centers.
Because of the program, she’s able to go to Narragansett High School even though she lives in South Kingstown.
“Going to Narragansett provided me with a second chance and a new education,” Conlon said in an interview before the hearing.
Her mom, Kathy Conlon, said her other child remains in South Kingstown schools.
“It’s nice to be able to choose which program is right for your child,” she said.
Rep. Evan Shanley, D-Warwick, is the lead sponsor of the bill, which he says he submitted at the request of Superintendent Thornton. Shanley said he’s willing to propose amendments to the bill that would prevent duplicate local programs from being eliminated, and to grandfather in students who are currently in programs so they don’t have to switch schools.
But he said the bill is about equity and fairness, making sure that students are not using the vocational programs to change school districts for other reasons, like to play on a sports team.
“The problem is that Warwick offers some of the same programs offered out of district, yet still has the pay to send these kids out of district,” Shanley said. “I’m told there are students and parents that are using the vocational programs to get their kids into better school districts. So that’s a problem.”
Rhode Island Department of Education Commissioner Ken Wagner “strongly opposes” the legislation, writing in a statement that it would undermine efforts to give students access to career pathways.
“The mark of a great school is not one that locks its doors to keep kids inside,” Wagner said. “A truly great school is one where the doors are open and students are free to leave, but they choose not to.”