How to Slice an Apple

by Madeleine Matsui

Illustration by Layla Ehsan

published April 10, 2015

After a slew of new appointments to the Providence School Board (PSB) by newly elected Mayor Jorge Elorza, the expansion of charter schools in Rhode Island has proven to be as controversial here as anywhere else in the country. Despite a projected budget shortfall for the city, for the first time in five years the PSB is pressing the mayor’s office for an increase in the city’s contribution to the Providence Schools Department. A large portion of the expected increase of $16.8 million in funding to the city’s total school budget of $363 million for the 2015-2016 fiscal year would go towards benefits and payments to charter schools. The Elorza administration has refused to comment on whether it will indeed increase funding for the Schools Department, although a spokesperson announced that the issue is among the mayor’s top priorities. Since funding for schools is tied to student enrollment, and in light of strong interest in charter schools, it seems likely that Providence will be investing more resources in charter schools under Mayor Elorza.

With around 7,000 children enrolled in 25 (primarily urban) charter schools across the state, there has been increasing pressure from parents for charter schools to expand due to rising numbers of applications and the limited number of spaces currently available. Tallying the results from the recent lottery for the 2015 school year, the strong trend in increasing applications to the public charter school lottery has continued. Speaking with the Independent, Steve Nardelli, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Charter Schools, said: “The final figures haven’t been confirmed, but it looks like we had over 13,500 [charter public school lottery] applications for 1,740 openings across 25 schools.”

Despite swelling interest in public charter schools, a wide range of critics—including parents of public school students, school superintendents, and municipal leaders and politicians—have in recent years voiced their dissatisfaction with charter schools and urged reduced funding. They have charged charter schools with failing to provide the empirical evidence needed to justify their budget increases and have blamed charter schools for placing additional financial strain on an already over-burdened system at a time when funding to other public services is being cut and services consolidated. One of the primary concerns is that charter schools are drawing from the central pool of already limited funding, specifically impacting traditional public schools’ finances. Responding to criticism from those who disagree with increasing charter school funding, Susan Lusi, PSD superintendent, urged members of the City Council Education Committee to move away from viewing charter schools as in opposition to public schools. Instead, she offered a vision of charter schools as an investment in the state’s future as a whole. She also endorsed a more proportional funding formula in terms of charters versus regular public schools, and in March announced an expected $4.4 million increase to a total of $19.5 million to support the city’s 4,200 charter school students.

In 2013, Stanford’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) released its second-ever national report on charter school performance, with encouraging outcomes for the Ocean State. The report found that Rhode Island “clearly led the pack in growth rates and impact on performance.” CREDO’s findings showed that in terms of reading, Rhode Island has “the strongest charter effect,” with 86 additional days of learning at a traditional public school necessary to match the results of the state’s charter schools; the Center reported similarly promising results in math, with a gap of 108 additional days of learning. With public school enrollment declining in most urban and suburban communities throughout Rhode Island, the report’s findings suggest charter schools in the state are producing measurable and substantial growth in student learning and will surely fuel interest in charter schools as an alternative for students and their families.

Funded with public dollars but afforded added flexibility in terms of personnel hiring, school structure, and budgetary management, charter schools have emerged as an alternative approach to the traditional public and private schools in the country. The “Charter Public School Act of Rhode Island” specifically encourages the development of schools that employ alternative learning methods to cater to the needs of public school students and offer them additional choices in terms of their education. Similarly, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) states on its website that its vision for charter schools is to “provide school choices and opportunities for Rhode Island families – particularly those with pupils who are traditionally underserved.” “Back in the 90s, when charter school legislation was first passed,” Nardelli told the Independent, “a major focus of charter school legislation was and has always been at-risk students usually in the urban centers where there is poverty, and poverty equates with that risk.”

Meeting the needs of economically disadvantaged students remains a central issue for charter schools and a motivating factor in increasing funding. The RIDE report calculated that in 2013, 67 percent of charter school students in Rhode Island were eligible for free or reduced lunch, compared to 47 percent of traditional high school students. Reduced-price lunch recipients’ family incomes are at most 185 percent more than the federal poverty guideline and at most 130 percent more for free lunch recipients. Stark differences in student achievement are tied to economic differences that exacerbate gaps in learning. Across the state, a recent report released by Roger Williams University Latino Policy Institute found a 29-percentage point gap between low-income students and wealthier students in math.

The challenge for public charter schools in Rhode Island is to effectively serve a higher percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch as well as a higher percentage of English language learners (ELLs) compared to the state as a whole. According to statistics compiled by the RIDE in April 2014, 11 percent of public charter school students receive English language services, while the rest of the state’s traditional public schools had a 6 percent rate of ELLs. Compared to Rhode Island as a whole, public charter schools also serve a greater percentage of Black and Latino students, as well as fewer white students. As of October 2013, 52 percent of students were Latino, 16 percent were black, 26 percent were white, and 6 percent were another ethnicity or identified as multi-ethnic. The Latino Policy Institute report found that by 8th grade, Latino students score approximately 2 to 2.5 grade levels below white students nationally, with the Latino-white achievement gap in Rhode Island as one of the worst in the country.

Because of their flexibility in curricula, charter schools are better able than traditional public schools to tailor their programs to the needs of their students. Yet a whole host of interconnected issues stand in the way of student success, from neighborhoods with segregated housing policies to ill-prepared teachers to lack of adequate social services. Schools in general are also faced with annual fixed costs growing at a pace faster than access to new sources of funding, not to mention complicated issues such as how best to assess both teacher and student performance. Since educational outcomes are usually strong predictors of economic well being later in life, student achievement and equity certainly have major long-term consequences. For now, charter schools in the state remain an open question far from being resolved. As both a growing mainstay and relative newcomer to the educational landscape, much of charter schools’ future and ability to create lasting change hinges on the much-contested allocation of state and municipal funding. Evidence pointing towards charter schools as continuing their reputation as a quality public school choice option for Rhode Island’s most vulnerable populations suggests proposed increases in funding are justified. With steady interest from parents and students forming a strong foundation for future growth, Rhode Island charter schools have the potential to act as a vehicle for innovation and an instrument for broader educational reform.

MADELEINE MATSUI B’17 is learning.