NEWS

Council backs push for freeze on charters

By DANIEL A. KITTREDGE
Posted 2/24/21

By DANIEL KITTREDGE While some members expressed concern over the length of the proposed freeze, the City Council on Monday unanimously backed a resolution calling on the General Assembly to approve a three-year moratorium on charter school expansion in

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NEWS

Council backs push for freeze on charters

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While some members expressed concern over the length of the proposed freeze, the City Council on Monday unanimously backed a resolution calling on the General Assembly to approve a three-year moratorium on charter school expansion in Rhode Island.

The resolution, cosponsored by Ward 3 Councilman John Donegan and Citywide Councilwoman Jessica Marino, cites the potential fiscal crunch facing Cranston Public Schools in the coming fiscal year and the significant amount of money the district pays in charter school tuitions.

Early projections for the coming year show state aid to Cranston’s schools remaining flat. The district has adopted an initial $171.9 million budget plan that seeks an additional $3.8 million in the city’s contribution.

The resolution notes that district’s expected payments to charter schools for the coming year total nearly $3.3 million. In adds that “any increase in the number of seats at charter schools will unequivocally draw financial resources away from Cranston Public Schools.”

“The emphasis for me is simply looking at the financial situation … and making sure that our Cranston Public School system is adequately funded,” Donegan said.

“This is not about charter versus public. This is about, first and foremost, fiscal responsibility,” Marino said, calling it “unwise” to invest in charters at the expense of public schools “without doing our homework first.”

“This is for the benefit of all of our children,” she added.

The state Senate earlier this month approved a bill submitted by Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin (D-Dist. 1, Providence) that would establish a three-year moratorium while lawmakers conduct a review of the charter school funding system. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House by Rep. William O’Brien (D-Dist. 54, North Providence) and referred to that chamber’s Finance Committee.

Ward 2 Councilwoman Aniece Germain voiced her support for the resolution, calling it “the right thing to do now.”

Others questioned the length of the proposed moratorium, even as they expressed support for a pause on charter school expansion.

Ed Brady, the council’s vice president and Ward 4 representative, suggested the three-year timeframe is “arbitrary.” Discussions with state officials regarding why that length of time was chosen, he said, have not addressed his concern.

“That’s the question I can’t really seem to get answered,” he said.

Calling it a “difficult vote,” Brady added: “I agree that we need to be our best to fully fund public schools, but I also believe in charter schools.” He also said he looks forward to a joint meeting between the School Committee and City Council on the school funding issue.

Ward 6 Councilman Matt Reilly also described the three-year moratorium as “arbitrary,” suggesting a one-year pause “makes a little more sense.” If left at three years, he said, “the grass is going to grow under people’s feet, and people are going to become complacent and not attack the issue.”

He added: “Reform is necessary, and if this is how we’re going to get there, then I support that.”

In response to the timeframe concerns, Marino said it is her understanding that the three-year window is being sought to provide a “true picture” in terms of testing as part of the review. Student assessment, she said, has been disrupted as a result of the pandemic, and it will take “more than a year to tackle this issue responsibly.”

Ward 1 Councilman Lammis Vargas noted her previous employment at the Blackstone Valley Prep charter school, and said that for many parents who are unable to afford private school, “they really feel that [a charter school] is their ticket to providing their children the best education they can.”

Vargas added, however, that a review of the charter funding system and the state’s educational funding formula as a whole is “long overdue.”

“We all want to do what’s best for our children,” she said.

Cranston Public Schools Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse and Liz Larkin, president of the Cranston Teachers’ Alliance, both spoke in favor of the resolution during Monday’s meeting.

The superintendent said while charter schools are “the best and most valuable options” for some students, “I’m concerned that we’re flooding the market, so to speak.” She also spoke of the “economic uncertainty” facing the state, city and district as a result of the pandemic.

“Having more students potentially leave Cranston and cost the district more money … at this point would be very detrimental,” she said.

Larkin said charter schools were originally envisioned as “innovative classrooms,” and she pointed to the New England Laborers’/Cranston Public Schools Construction & Career Academy as an example of success in that mission.

However, she said, charters were “never meant to drain funding from the district public schools” and create a “parallel” educational system.

“Going forward, we will need every cent that we receive and that we can get” to invest in instruction, COVID-19 safety and social-emotional supports, she said. Losing more funding to charter schools, she said, would be “egregious and inequitable to our 10,000-plus students.”

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