Un-Chartered Territory

Providence considers the future of public schools

by by Bobby Hunter

illustration by by Annika Finne

I arrived at the West Broadway Neighborhood Association in November,  housed in a converted gas station, with no central heating. Despite the cold, a small group of activists was huddled around a conference room, strategizing about contacting  state representatives and Governor Chaffee. The purpose? To express community opposition to Achievement First, a charter management organization based in New Haven and its proposal to expand into Providence.

Achievement First (hereafter AF) is a private company whose bid to open two schools in Providence is scheduled to be voted on January 19. The corporation has grown quickly since its flagship Amistad Academy opened in New Haven in 1999, now with 19 campuses in Connecticut and New York. Though a private corporation, it would receive funding from the City of Providence to operate mayoral academies—charter schools whose board will seat Providence mayor Angel Taveras. Though charter schools are exempt from some district regulations in exchange for review and possible termination every few years, not all charter schools are run by for-profit companies. Accordingly, AF is one of the more controversial corporations operating charter schools in the country today: proponents laud the “no-excuses” disciplinary model as a much-needed choice for parents, while critics believe these approaches are a damaging route to achieve higher test scores at any cost—both to students and to the district’s finances.

The controversy surrounding the AF proposal is indeed emblematic of the debates surrounding education reform today, illustrating current struggles over public accountability, finance, and the nature of what “public education” really means.

Public dollars, private results
Both charter advocates—including businesses, parents, and politicians—and the coalition of dozens of community groups that has formed in opposition to AF agree that the Providence Public School District needs reform. But agreement ends there. The first of several contested issues is AF’s track record of success.

Achievement First has brought 82 percent of their fourth graders in New York up to math proficiency, among a number of other strong results on standardized tests. Their Amistad Academy was commended by the US Education Department as a national model for closing the achievement gap. But test scores, like most statistics, can be misleading. Their four Connecticut campuses failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress marks for 2010-11 and did not pass No Child Left Behind standards. Furthermore, some research has shown that many needy students—such as English Language Learners (ELL students) and students eligible for free or reduced lunch—are underrepresented in AF schools: in New York City, ELLstudents make up only 1-2 percent of AF’s campuses, compared to a district-wide average of 14 percent.

Still, gains on test scores have been touted by many of AF’s supporters, including RI Campaign for Achievement Now director Maryellen Butke, who says that the organization’s advocacy for AF falls squarely into their goals of providing parents with more choices about their children’s education.

“As a middle class mother, I could move, send my kid to a private school, whatever to improve their education,” Butke explains. “But how do we give these same choices to families who can’t choose to opt out of where they’re placed?”

A “pedagogy of punishment”
Providence public school teacher Anna Kuperman was first “politically reactivated” by the firings of all 1,926 Providence teachers in February, a move made by Mayor Angel Taveras to ensure “maximum flexibility” in eventual layoff decisions. While most were rehired, the subsequent relationship between teachers and district management has been rocky at best. Kuperman was drawn to the Achievement First issue because she felt the schools’ heavy-discipline pedagogy would move the district in the wrong direction.

“It’s a no-excuses model—that’s something I wouldn’t want to put my child through, not only because I think it’s cruel and punitive, but because I don’t think it’s actually what kids need to learn,” Kuperman said.

Kuperman’s assertion is supported by a number of parents whose stories have been collected by New York’s Grassroots Education Movement in a nearly hour long video of parents explaining why they pulled their students from AF schools. In its footage, parent Leslie-Anne Byfield describes how her son was made to sit on the floor all day until he “earned a seat.” These strategies of stigmatization have been described as “behavior modification” by AF teachers.

Butke admits that she hasn’t seen this footage but notes that “parents complain about all kinds of schools…I think that’s just one model; one size doesn’t fit all in education.” Behind Butke’s reasoning is a free-market logic: if the schools’ practices are objectionable to a large number of people, parents won’t want to apply.

While both Butke and Byfield acknowledge that parents have the right to send their kids where they please, there are ambiguities in the quality of information about charter schools when making decisions. Many charter schools have full time public relations teams with flexibility in what they advertise to parents.  For many activists, it seems that confidence in the integrity of the information that charter organizations like AF make public can be the difference between an ideology of more-choice-is-better and a critical guardedness of new reform options.


Follow the money
An AF campus would be located in Providence but also serve students from Cranston, Warwick, and North Providence. In RI, when a student attends a school outside their district their would-be district loses the average cost of educating one student. Since the money is re-allocated, not entirely lost, AF advocates it won’t significantly hurt districts.

But Tom Sgorous, editor of the Rhode Island Policy Reporter, an independent news source dedicated to analyzing state policy issues, calculated that charter expansion would in fact hurt operating costs. He estimates that a loss of one student to outside the district mean a loss of about $14,000 for Providence—because the original district still must pay for the teachers, administrators, and countless other supplies.

Butke, however, argues that these costs are essentially worth it: continuing to put public money into PPSD’s current schools is unacceptable. “Right now, nine schools are under corrective action—these are persistently low achieving. Our taxpayer money needs to go to proper services that yield results. I consider this a civil rights issue.” Butke noted that Rhode Island currently ranks sixth in the nation in per pupil spending.

Worth the investment?
While Kuperman might agree that the current system isn’t working, she counters that this is in large part a symptom of too little money, rather than wholly misplaced money. Indeed, she has no shortage of ideas about what is needed:

“Smaller school communities in which parents and teachers have a say about the curriculum, the school day, and after school day,” Kuperman said. But this requires money, more planning time, and less time and money spent on testing.”

Opponents of AF also feel that the possibility of experimenting with other, traditionally funded models of reform might be at risk. Despite the increased visibility of the disciplinary and funding arguments, the AF debate is often divided on these ideological lines, exposing fundamental disagreement about who has the right to own public schools.

A lawsuit involving reforms at Providence’s Hope High School, exemplifies this debate. In 2005, the state split Hope into three smaller academies and instituted a rotating block schedule with more planning time for teachers. These reforms were widely touted as successful, reducing suspensions but 83 percent and raising NECAP reading scores by 65 percent. The model was deemed unsustainably expensive for the district, though, and ultimately scrapped.In another GoLocalProv piece (to which Fischer’s article was a response), Brown student and educational activist Aaron Regunberg points to the case as evidence that successful, fully public reform strategies can be successful—if they are adequately funded.

It seems that both sides might point to this case as proof of the implausibility of the current public school system (and the way it is financed) to facilitate better long-term educational outcomes. However, this recognition can still lead to vastly different policy recommendations. While Butke and other pro-AF reformers might conclude that this must mean more immediate and aggressive investment in charter schools—after all, a sudden surge in financing public education is unlikely to happen, given the state’s budget shortfall. But members of the community coalition would heartily disagree. Instead, Kuperman or Regunbergmight argue that placing trust in an outside organization to effectively outsource such reforms (and serve a relatively small number of students) distracts from the possibility of transformational change for the majority of students still attending traditional neighborhood schools. Following this logic, the only way to really solve public education would be to organize for better funding and more parent, teacher, and community collaboration across the board: anything else is a band-aid solution.

Whose schools?
Such an impasse exposes the ideological rift that underlies the entire AF debate: whether turning over management duties to private, often for-profit companies can ever lead to the sustainable change that Providence Public Schools need. “Ideological” does not mean unsubstantial, though—the crux of this impasse is a series of important questions about public accountability: how can parents ensure that their children’s schools are responsive to them, not just the company’s shareholders? Is the fact that Taveras will be on AF’s board enough to ensure public accountability? Can parents trust that charter schools with widely harmful disciplinary policies will be abandoned—either by the charter renewal process or by the ebbs and flows of free market demand? These are some of the particular questions the AF debate tackles right now. However, even after the AF question is settled, the question of whose schools should be invested in—the chronically under resourced general public’s, or the still-untested private sector’s—is likely to be contested for years to come.

BOBBY HUNTER B ’12: is chartering his own course.