Providence Supt. Maher decries ‘unnecessary and harmful rhetoric’ in charter school debate

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence schools Supt. Chris Maher is pushing back against “critics” who he believes have attacked the school district in order to justify Achievement First’s proposal to expand from 720 students to 3,112 students over the next decade.

In a district-wide email sent Thursday, Maher described the city’s school system as “a place of innovation, momentum and high expectations,” but said others have attempted to “dismiss the value of our efforts in order to promote their own agenda.”

“The current debate over charter school expansion in our city has included unnecessary and harmful rhetoric – rhetoric that characterizes Providence Public Schools as stuck in a pattern of poor performance and that minimizes the important progress we have made in recent years,” Maher wrote.

Maher’s email doesn’t name any of the critics or provide specifics about what they have said about the district, but it appears to be at least partially directed at the Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner, who has endorsed Achievement First’s expansion plan.

Achievement First currently serves 720 students at two mayoral academy elementary schools, but wants to grow to 3,112 students by the 2026-27 school year, with three K-8 programs and a high school. The organization’s current charter caps the number of students at 912 and doesn’t include any middle school or high school.

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has said he wants the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education to approve Achievement First’s expansion when it meets next week, in part because he has the final say over if and how the organization would actually grow to 3,112 students.

Elorza, Maher and the Providence School Board all support allowing students enrolled at the existing elementary schools to remain with Achievement First through high school, but they have expressed concern about the third K-8 plan that would bring the organization to 3,112 students in 10 years.

Critics of the proposed expansion claim it may ultimately result in the district losing out on $35 million annually because Rhode Island’s school funding formula requires the majority of per-pupil funding to follow a student no matter where they attend public school. But no one in city or state government has produced a thorough financial analysis on the expansion.

Supporters of the growth plan, including Wagner, have said more than 15,000 students in Providence are attending historically underperforming schools. Like many urban districts, the city’s schools are plagued by crumbling infrastructure, woeful test scores and high absenteeism rates.

In his email, Maher said Providence schools have a lot to be proud of.

He noted that nearly every elementary school in the city has shown improvements on both the English Language Arts (ELA) and math sections of the annual Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam.  He said the district has also expanded personalized learning and implemented culturally-reflective curricula.

Maher also said suspensions and chronic absenteeism have decreased, although six city high schools reported at least 50% of their students missed 18 or more days of school during the 2015-16 school year.

He said the negative rhetoric about the district could have “dire consequences,” undermining professionals and hurting the feelings of students.

“This divisiveness helps neither our public school district nor the charter schools, and undermines the basic principles of cooperation, team work and respect that we teach in our classrooms every day.” Maher said.

Maher is in his first year as the permanent superintendent in Providence, although he held the interim title throughout the 2015-16 school year. Wagner is in his second year as commissioner.

In an emailed statement, Wagner’s chief of staff, Christine Lopes Metcalfe, said the commissioner believes Mayor Elorza and Maher are making progress in the city’s schools.

“Providence teachers are dedicated professionals who care deeply for their students,” she wrote. “We must continue to bring every tool at our disposal to support them.”

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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