Rhode Island Weighs New Standards for Charter Schools

Published October 25, 2010

Charter schools have finally caught on in America’s smallest state, but charter advocates in Rhode Island say state regulators seeking to impose a double standard on the publicly funded but independent schools risk stifling growth and innovation there.

Motivated by the lure of federal Race to the Top dollars, Rhode Island lawmakers in March lifted a statewide charter school cap from 20 schools to 35. But charter operators question a proposed accountability system that would require charters to meet higher academic proficiency targets than traditional public schools.

“There are many of us that are concerned about creating two systems of public schools,” said Rhode Island League of Charter Schools president Julie Nora.

Concerns about disparate accountability systems emerged in May when Education Commissioner Deborah Gist proposed closing Highlander Charter School—a “social justice”-themed K-8 school in Providence—for failing to show sufficient academic progress. Since then, Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) staff have worked with charter school representatives on crafting a performance management process.

Standards Debated
More than 100 parents, school leaders, and community members attended a September forum at Pawtucket’s International Charter School. Gist said the feedback from participants on the proposed accountability system was “largely positive.” The Rhode Island Board of Regents is slated to vote on an official public hearing in November, with a final vote to be scheduled before the end of the year.

While praising the commissioner’s efforts to improve charter accountability, National Association of Charter School Authorizers CEO and president Greg Richmond said states need to take a more equitable approach. 

“We want to hold all schools to the same high standard,” said Richmond. “The consequence for a school that fails to meet high standards is that a low-performing school can lose its charter.”

Autonomy Level Questioned
Gist argues charter schools should face a different standard because they have the freedom to help students make greater academic gains.

“Traditional public schools, unless they are among the lowest-achieving in the state, don’t have the same level of accountability,” she said. “Charters are given autonomy: That’s one of the benefits of being a charter.”

But Nora disputes Gist’s claims, noting most of the state’s 15 charter schools lack the necessary flexibility in employee hiring and contributing to the state’s pension systems to function autonomously. Fourteen schools are classified as district or independent charters, which have unionized teachers or other limitations on operational discretion. And most Rhode Island charters serve low-income, at-risk students.

Locals Have ‘Vested Stake’
Richmond says there is great promise in Rhode Island’s unique policy giving charter-authorizing power to mayors all across the state.

Rhode Island in 2008 passed legislation allowing for another kind of charter, called mayoral academies, which operate with the autonomy often granted to charters in other states. Democracy Prep Blackstone Valley is currently Rhode Island’s only mayoral academy.

“They’re elected, they know their communities, and they have a highly vested stake in the success of their communities,” Richmond said.

Nora said the League favors Rhode Island lawmakers bringing independent and district charters up to the mayoral academy standard.

“We would like to see greater autonomy for all charter schools,” she said.

Goal: Doubling Charters
Despite the controversy over accountability systems, Gist said the state plans to expand access to independent public school options.

“We plan to double the number of charter schools in our state over the next few years,” she said.

Currently, approimately 3,200 of the state’s 145,000 public school students are enrolled in a charter, with more than 3,000 on a charter waiting list. Gist says she wants to replicate the academic success that draws families to many of the state’s current charter schools.

“The performance of several of the public charters in Rhode Island surpasses that of the districts and the state, and these factors make them appealing to parents,” said Gist.

State officials plan to fuel their charter expansion efforts with two major U.S. Department of Education grant awards received in August: $75 million from the Race to the Top competition and $2 million from the Charter Schools Fund.

“Many things are aligning to be favorable for the growth of charter schools in Rhode Island,” Richmond said.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado.