The smallest state in the union has reopened the door to more public school choice and competition, though waiting parents will have to be patient.
Rhode Island’s moratorium on the creation of new charter schools expired June 30, removing a key barrier to parental demand for educational alternatives. The legislative prohibition, enacted in 2004 under pressure from teachers’ unions, was renewed twice but came to an end this summer.
“For the first time in four years, we’ll be able to open new charter schools,” said Steve Nardelli, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Charter Schools.
Many see the expiration as part of an encouraging trend.
“Rhode Island education is going through a transformation,” said state Sen. Daniel Issa (D-Central Falls). “The expiration of the charter school moratorium will present an opportunity for some new ideas and creativity.”
Students won’t be able to attend any new charter schools right away, however. Funding will not be available for more charters until autumn 2009 because of state budget restraints.
Nardelli said six strong charter school proposals are currently in the approval process. Two have been provisionally approved by the state authorizer, the Rhode Island Board of Regents, and as many as five charter schools could open their doors to students next year.
The state’s 11 charters served roughly 3,000 of its 147,000 public school students in 2007-08. About 5,000 more students are on waiting lists.
More than three-fourths of the state’s charter school students are considered at-risk, yet they tend to outperform the traditional public school population in test scores, graduation rates, and parental satisfaction.
Nardelli credits the state’s authorizer for Rhode Island charter schools’ success.
“Our Board of Regents has been very prudent,” Nardelli said. “They have been very thorough in the approval process, and that has turned out to result in quality schools.”
Rhode Island currently has two kinds of charters in operation: Three district charters that employ union teachers, and eight independent charters that allow for more flexibility in management.
In June, the state legislature also approved the formation of a third kind of school, the mayoral academy. Created by municipal leaders, these schools will hire teachers based only on merit and will not establish tenure, will not pay teachers according to prevailing wage scales, and will enroll teachers in a defined contribution pension plan instead of the state’s retirement system.
Issa, who chairs the state Senate Education Committee, sees a great opportunity for this new type of school.
“People will be watching to see the actual product, as well as the student achievement,” Issa said. “This is an awesome responsibility for those involved.”
One management company local leaders cite as a likely candidate to run new mayoral academies is KIPP (the Knowledge Is Power Program), which operates 65 schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia. The provider’s only New England school is in Lynn, Massachusetts.
“Rhode Island has been looking at us,” said KIPP spokesman Steve Mancini. He noted the earliest possible opening would be in 2011.
To be considered, Mancini said Rhode Island would have to assemble a strong community coalition, secure sufficient funding, and commit to opening at least five schools. Among the state’s three types of charter schools, only the mayoral academy would give the necessary freedom required by KIPP and similar providers.
“Everyone here at KIPP is heartened by these developments in Rhode Island,” Mancini said. “Elected officials are looking to models with strong track records. We are certainly flattered they are looking at us.”
With largely equitable funding, the chief remaining barrier to the charter school choice option is a legislative statewide ceiling of 20 such schools. Nardelli is cautiously optimistic the number could be approached in three to four years.
“If our schools continue to perform as they have and to meet high standards, we will look into raising the cap then,” Nardelli said.
Charter schools are not the only form of school choice to make recent advances in Rhode Island. The state’s new Corporate Scholarship Tax Credit Program–approved in 2006–provided $1 million in its first year for needy parents to cover private school tuition costs.
“Rhode Island is quickly becoming a state that is very friendly to school choice,” said Andrew Campanella, director of communications for the Washington, DC-based Alliance for School Choice. “By allowing more charter schools, additional children will have the opportunity to attend high-quality, innovative schools.
“Rhode Island leaders deserve praise for working together in a bipartisan way to implement much-needed reforms,” Campanella added.
Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.