9 things to know about Rhode Island’s charter school battle

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – As the clock ticks down on the 2015 legislative session, Rhode Island lawmakers are set to consider several pieces of legislation that could slow the growth of charter schools in the state.

But why is the General Assembly seeking to make changes and why is Gov. Gina Raimondo saying she won’t sign the bills into law if they’re approved?

Here’s an overview.

1. Legislation would give cities and towns more control over charter schools.
Call this the “local control” bill. The state Senate on Tuesday passed legislation that would require city or town councils to approve the creation of a new charter school or the expansion of an existing one, while the House chose to table its version of the bill in order to make some last-minute changes. The legislation no longer includes a provision that would have called for a moratorium on new charter approvals until the state funding formula is revised and allowed cities and towns to freeze their appropriation to charter schools at the fiscal year 2015-16 level if the General Assembly doesn’t alter the funding formula before July 1, 2016.

2. Lawmakers don’t want charters to have a detrimental effect on traditional public schools.
Call this the “fiscal note” bill. The Senate Education Committee has scheduled a vote Tuesday to consider legislation that would require members of the Board of Education to “make an affirmative finding that the proposed school or the proposed expansion shall not have a detrimental effect on the finances and/or the academic performance of the sending districts affected by the new school or the expansion.” It has already been approved by the House and would not affect already-approved new schools or expansions. The wording on this bill is incredibly vague, leading opponents to say the board would have the right to block every future charter school because state law requires that money follow the child, meaning that any time a student leaves an existing public school for a charter, the sending district loses money. At the same time, the bill doesn’t clearly identify the meaning of “affirmative finding,” leaving it open for interpretation.

3. As you can tell, this is largely a fight over funding.
Charter schools are public schools, which means they receive public funding. The state’s 2010 creation of a funding formula for school aid required cities and towns to take their entire local expenditure on education and divide it by the number of students in their districts to arrive at a spending-per-pupil figure. When a student chooses to attend a charter school, that per-pupil figure follows the student out of the district. But a report issued last month by the legislature’s Special Commission to Assess Rhode Island’s “Fair Funding Formula” found that the per-pupil figure often includes expenses that aren’t directly related to a student’s education, like facility costs, pension payments and special education costs. The most common criticism from superintendents is that while the money may follow the child, fixed costs remain with the district.

4. Everyone agrees the funding formula should be revisited.
The commission that studied the funding formula, chaired by Democratic Rep. Jay O’Grady of Lincoln, made no formal recommendations on changes that should be made, but Gov. Gina Raimondo, House and Senate leadership and charter school leaders all say they agree the formula should be updated. Indeed, it’s worth noting that the local control and fiscal note bills have picked up momentum because of the recognized need for changes to the funding formula, but neither bill actually tackles the issue. They simply make it more difficult for new charters to be built or for existing ones to expand while the funding formula is being examined.

5. Even Providence has changed its tune on charters.
While outgoing Providence Superintendent Dr. Susan Lusi has said she strongly supports school choice, she told the City Council Education Committee in March she has become “increasingly ambivalent because of the impact of the costs.” She said the city expects to spend nearly $20 million to send students to charter schools during the 2015-16 school year, a figure that has steadily increased recently. She cited private school transportation and textbooks as well as tuition for high-need special education students as examples of expenses that Providence has and charters do not. “I don’t think right now we have what I would consider a fair funding formula in terms of charters versus regular public schools,” she told the committee.

6. Governor Raimondo opposes the charter school bills.
While the governor wants to take another look at the funding formula, she has made it clear “she cannot sign something that is designed to essentially end our charter schools and make it impossible to have new charters,” spokeswoman Marie Aberger said Monday. “Charter schools play an important role in our efforts to improve education through innovation. They also play a key role in making a quality education accessible to all Rhode Islanders. As we are working together to strengthen Rhode Island’s economy and spark a comeback, the governor believes we need to stay focused on expanding education opportunities and building skills for all students.”

7. The local control bill still has a lot of unanswered questions.
Despite those comments from the governor’s office, neither bill would “make it impossible” for new charter schools to be built. The state has already capped the number of charters that can be granted at 35 and there are currently only 21 approved charters, according to the Rhode Island Department of Education. But both bills certainly make it far more difficult for the number of charters to grow. For example, a statewide charter like the widely acclaimed International Charter School in Pawtucket could be forced to seek approval from every city and town in the state before it expands. Same goes with any new statewide charter. Mayoral academies would need approval from the communities they draw students from. For example, Achievement First in Providence would need approval from the legislative bodies in Providence, Cranston, Warwick and North Providence if it wants to expand beyond what the Board of Education has already signed off on.

8. Rhode Island has really good charter schools.
There’s a reason charter school advocates are fighting so passionately against the two bills. From Blackstone Valley Prep to Beacon Charter High School for the Arts, many of Rhode Island’s non-traditional public schools are considered second to none. A widely cited 2013 study from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that students at traditional schools would need 108 extra days of school to catch up to their charter school peers in math and 86 additional days to catch up in reading – both tops in the country among the 27 states that were reviewed. Amanda Fenton, the director of state and federal policy at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said last week “Rhode Island’s charter sector is one of the highest-performing in the country.”

9. Massachusetts has a reimbursement program for municipalities when students go to charters.
Rhode Island is not the first state where cities and towns have complained about charter school funding. In Massachusetts, the funding formula was updated to provide districts a 100% reimbursement for sending students to charter schools for the first year, and a 25% reimbursement in each of the following five years. Here’s a good explainer on the Massachusetts system.

This report has been updated.

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

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