12 things to know about Achievement First’s proposed expansion in Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – We now know where Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner stands on Achievement First’s proposal to grow to 3,112 students over the next decade.

In a recommendation released Friday evening, Wagner encouraged the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education to approve the charter school expansion when it meets later this month, arguing that the proposal will increase high-quality educational opportunities to students from Providence, Cranston, North Providence and Warwick.

So what else should you know about Wagner’s recommendation and Achievement First? Here’s an overview.

Commissioner Wagner’s recommendation was not a surprise.
There are plenty of expansion opponents who may be upset, but no one who pays close attention to education in Rhode Island believed Commissioner Wagner was planning to come out against Achievement First’s proposal. Why would he? One of his most-used talking points about the capital city over the last year has been the fact that 15,000 students attend schools that have long been considered underperforming. (Note: This may be true, but it doesn’t mean every student attending a struggling school is low-performing, just as it doesn’t mean all the students who attend high-performing schools ace every test.) Achievement First has shown excellent initial results in Rhode Island and many of the schools it operates in Connecticut and New York have successful track records. While Wagner did consider the potential cost of allowing more students who might ordinarily attend traditional public schools go to schools run by Achievement First, he suggested the “fiscal benefit provided to students who receive a high-quality education at Achievement First is significant.” He cited a Rhode Island Innovative Policy Lab study that suggested students who attend Achievement First could increase their earnings by between $10,954 and $13,451 by the time they reach the age of 28.

This is all about the number of seats Achievement First can offer.
Achievement First’s proposal as we know it is to grow from 920 students during the 2017-18 school year to 3,112 students by the 2026-27 school year, but there are still a number a variables that need to be considered over the next decade. Let’s focus on what we know. While the state initially approved a five-year charter for Achievement First to open two elementary schools (Providence Mayoral Academy and Iluminar Mayoral Academy), it has always been the organization’s intention to grow to serve students from Kindergarten through high school. Mayor Jorge Elorza, Supt. Chris Maher and the Providence School Board are all on board with allowing elementary school students who attend Achievement First to remain with the organization through middle and high school. Achievement First’s immediate concern is having a place for students currently in the fourth grade to go during the 2018-19 school year. If the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education approves the expansion plan, that concern is erased. The more controversial aspect of the proposal is the addition of seats beyond the natural growth of the two existing schools, which would get Achievement First to 3,112 seats a decade from now.

Achievement First still has plenty of work to do.
There’s a reason the growth plan would be phased in over 10 years, and it’s not simply about gradually increasing the fiscal impact on the traditional school districts in Providence, Cranston, North Providence and Warwick rather than imposing it all at once. Achievement First has to get its ducks in a row too. For example, the two existing elementary schools are currently housed in the former Oliver Hazard Perry Middle School on Hartford Avenue, a building Achievement First leases from the city for $1 per year. The organization will need to find more space as part of its expansion. It will likely need to raise money to renovate another building. The earliest the third K-8 school would open would be the 2018-19 school year, and Achievement First has proposed starting with sixth grade students who previously attended traditional public schools. It would begin enrolling kindergarten and first grade students in the 2019-20 school year. It’s possible that plan could be altered. For example, city officials still want Achievement First to take on more middle school students. Any changes would need to be approved by Council on Elementary and Secondary Education.

Mayor Elorza has veto power over part of the expansion.
The mayor has been pretty consistent about what he supports and what he questions when it comes to Achievement First. He maintains that he is all for allowing students at the two existing elementary schools to attend middle school and high school with Achievement First. Elorza’s spokesperson reiterated Friday that the mayor won’t support the larger expansion to 3,112 students “unless he is assured that funding is identified so as not to adversely impact the district.” As chairman of Achievement First’s board of directors in Rhode Island, Elorza also convinced his colleagues to approve a resolution that gives him veto power over that larger expansion. That’s right. Even if the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education gives Achievement First the go ahead to expand, Elorza can block the plan if he wants. Elorza said Monday he has no timeline for deciding whether he’ll veto the expansion, suggesting “it could be this week, it could be this month or it could be two or three years from now.” Meanwhile, Gov. Raimondo said she doesn’t expect to ask lawmakers to adjust the education funding formula during in 2017 legislative session.

Traditional school districts stand to lose out on millions of dollars from the expansion.
As much as supporters of Achievement First will argue that the only thing that matters when it comes to the expansion is that 2,000 more students will have access to a high-quality education, money is a real factor. Even with changes the General Assembly made to the school funding formula during the 2016 legislative session, the majority of per-pupil funding follows the child wherever they attend public school. Providence City Councilman Sam Zurier has warned that expansion could be devastating to the city’s finances. The teachers’ union has suggested the growth could bankrupt the city. In his recommendation, Commissioner Wagner said the expansion to 3,112 students would cost Providence about $35 million a year by the 2026-27 school year. In Cranston, the potential loss would be about $3.1 million. In North Providence, the total would be $1.2 million. In Warwick, it would be $772,000. What remains largely unknown is how much the communities could expect to save by not serving those 3,112 students themselves. Could an existing traditional public school be closed? How many fewer teachers, assistants and administrators would be needed? Providence’s internal auditor has suggested a reduction in teachers alone could lower that potential annual cost to around $29 million annually, but we haven’t seen an in-depth review yet.

Commissioner Wagner is opposing expansion plans at some other charter schools.
For all the attention paid to Achievement First’s proposal to grow by 2,192 students, five other charter schools – Paul Cuffee School, Segue Institute for Learning, The Greene School, The Learning Community and Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts – are seeking to grow by a total of 322 students. In addition, two new schools – Charette and Wangari Maathai Community School – are seeking charters to serve a combined 657 students in Providence alone. Aside from Achievement First, Commissioner Wagner is only recommending expansion at Cuffee and The Learning Community and he is opposed to the new charter at Charette. He isn’t expected to make a recommendation on Wangari Maathai until later this month, although it seems unlikely the plan will win support. It appears Wagner is focusing on expansion only at the schools with successful track records.

The commissioner did have some concerns about Achievement First’s expansion.
In his recommendation, Commissioner Wagner outlined four “essential concerns” the R.I. Dept. of Education had with Achievement First’s expansion plans. First, he noted that the application’s executive summary did not include its plan to adjust Achievement First’s organizational structure when it expands. He also said that while Achievement First did outperform the state average for the English language arts section of last year’s PARCC exam, the 46% proficiency rate was below the school’s stated goals. Then he said the application did not explain how Achievement First will maintain its current school culture at the middle and high school level. Finally, he said Achievement First did not provide evidence for its projection that it can secure $5 million in private grants over the first four years of the expansion.

A lot of families want their kids to go to Achievement First.
If supporters of the expansion shouldn’t be allowed to flatly dismiss the financial impact argument, opponents probably shouldn’t ignore this one. More than 900 parents submitted applications for their children to attend Achievement First during the 2016-17 school year. There were only 159 available seats. Even if the expansion is approved, there won’t be space for the 741 applicants who weren’t selected in Achievement First’s lottery until the 2019-20 school year. By the way, Achievement First isn’t the only charter school with high demand. The Paul Cuffee School had 1,840 applications for just 92 seats this year. The Learning Community had 1,059 applications for 51 seats.

Thousands of kids from Providence already don’t attend traditional public schools.
When we talk about the potential impact of more students leaving Providence public schools, it’s worth noting that a lot of kids are already gone.. According to Commissioner Wagner’s recommendation, there are approximately 29,200 school-age students living in Providence today. Only 23,800 of them – about 81% – are attending a traditional public school. Of the 5,400 Providence students not enrolled in the district, only 722 are Achievement First. Some are at the other charter schools and some families are choosing to pay for private school.

The president of the Providence Teachers Union has been extremely critical of the expansion.
Say what you want about union president Maribeth Reynolds-Calabro, but she isn’t afraid to tell you how she sees it. Her Facebook page includes six posts critical of Achievement First since Friday. On Twitter, she suggested it is unlikely the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education will oppose an expansion that is supported by Commissioner Wagner because the governor is the one who nominates members of the council. She’s probably right about that. It’s also worth noting that the fight over Achievement First comes at an important time for the union. Reynolds-Calabro is about to begin negotiating the next union contract with Supt. Maher and the Elorza administration.

Don’t underestimate the politics involved in this battle.
I mentioned above that all of the decision makers are generally in agreement over the idea that students enrolled in Achievement First’s two existing elementary schools should get stay with the organization through high school, but it gets murkier when it comes to additional 1,000 or so seats that would bring Achievement First up to 3,112 students. From Mayor Elorza’s perspective, he’s trying to balance his role as chair of the Achievement First board with his role as the city’s chief executive. That’s why he talks a lot about the potential cost. He’s also got to think about that teachers’ union contract his team will be negotiating over the next several months. And of course, he’s got to consider that many of the more liberal folks he’ll need during his re-election campaign in 2018 generally oppose charter schools. On the state side, Governor Raimondo has mostly stayed quiet on the Achievement First expansion, but her top aides have played a big behind-the-scenes role throughout the process. She too has a re-election campaign to think about in 2018, and it’s worth noting that some of Achievement First’s national backers supported her ascension to the governor’s office. She also already knows she isn’t likely to win the support of progressives in two years, so her tone on education may focus on expanding the number of high-quality seats in Providence.

The Council on Elementary and Secondary Education still has to approve the expansion.
It’s seems unlikely the council will vote Achievement First down, but there’s always a chance. Members have spent the last several months hearing public comment on the proposal and allowing both the R.I. Dept. of Education and outsiders to analyze the fiscal and societal impact of the expansion. According to Wagner, the department received 293 comments since Oct. 1, with 238 individual supporting the plan.  The council will hold another meeting Tuesday evening at the URI Providence building on Washington Street at 5:30. A vote is expected on Dec. 20.

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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