Bitter wind whipped across the State House lawn Monday, but the cold couldn’t keep away parents, educators and elected officials who gathered there for a rally to stop the Achievement First mayoral academy proposal.
Cranston Mayor Allan Fung first proposed the school for his city, but after being voted down by the Board of Regents, the application has been reworked and resubmitted by Providence Mayor Angel Taveras. Based in Providence, this school would pull students from Warwick, Providence, Cranston and North Providence.
“People are confused because they thought they already beat this proposal,” said Cranston School Committee Chairwoman Andrea Iannazzi.
The Regents are expected to hear testimony on the mayoral academy at their meeting today at 11:30 a.m. at the Department of Education. No time has been scheduled for a vote on the plan, spokesman Elliot Krieger said yesterday.
While she said she wouldn’t be attending the meeting, Rosemary Healey, director of human services and legal counsel for Warwick Schools, expects a representative will be present to testify in opposition to the proposal.
“Our biggest concern is that this is not a charter school that is going to meet the needs of this community,” she said. Healey said Warwick schools do a better job of meeting the needs of the community targeted by Achievement First. She identified that group as students eligible for free or subsidized meals.
She said she doesn’t see the academy as benefiting Warwick, yet draining scare resources. About $8,000 in Warwick taxpayer funds and $3,500 in state funds would follow each student attending the academy.
Mayor Scott Avedisian continues to support the academy on the basis that it offers a choice and competition. In response to the draining of funds from Warwick schools, Avedisian questions why the school committee hasn’t opposed charter schools until this point.
“They [Warwick schools] get a large chunk of the budget to begin with,” he said.
While Achievement First advocates say there would be no financial impact, as the funding formula is structured so that money follows the student, opponents argue that is disingenuous. The per-pupil expenditure would follow a Warwick student attending the AF academy, but the drop in enrollment is likely not significant enough to merit fewer classrooms or schools. In other words, they argue that there would be less money coming into the district, and little to no savings realized.
Opponents also find the timing to be suspect, as the fair funding formula was just implemented and will direct millions more in funding to Warwick.
“They’re after the per-pupil expenditure; that’s why I object to this,” said Roderick DaSilva, a Providence resident and who holds Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist responsible. “She fought for the fair funding formula and then invited [Achievement First] in.”
At Monday’s rally Providence parent Tobias Haller, who has two children in the public school system, said he feels uncomfortable with a school that is funded by corporate entities like Wal-Mart. He likened the mayoral academy setup to big business, and said that opening new charter schools would only lead to future closures of community public schools.
“I’m nervous about the path our public education is taking,” he said, pointing to the five schools already closed in Providence over the past few years. “We’ve seen no evidence that they’ve saved a dime on the backs of our children.”
During the initial round of proposals, Providence parent Osiris Harrell explained a conspiracy he thought was at play. Harrell said RIDE and AF officials knew that Cranston, a largely suburban community, would offer vehement opposition to the school. When the application was inevitably shut down, it was resubmitted in Providence, an urban community where many parents don’t have the time or means to fight against this kind of issue.
The crowd Monday was small, but speakers were met with cheers and applause, as well as support from members of Occupy Providence, who marched to the rally from their campsite in Burnside Park.
Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), which supports the Achievement First proposal, released a statement criticizing the group for organizing a rally on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“Martin Luther King’s tireless advocacy for social justice touched upon many aspects of our national dialogue, including the dire need to improve our public education system,” Manuela Raposo, a founding member of the Rhode Island Latino Professionals & Business Leaders Network, said in a release. “The astounding number of minority students falling through the cracks in our schools remains an urgent civil rights crisis, one that Achievement First is working tirelessly to overcome. Attempting to co-opt this day with a rally against their honorable efforts and in support of a languishing status quo misses the mark and, quite frankly, detracts from the symbolism of this national day of service and remembrance.”
Those at the rally said they couldn’t have picked a better day.
“This is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing on a day like today,” said Aaron Regunberg, a Brown University student who runs the Hope United program at Hope High School.
Regunberg criticized the data being used by the charter provider. AF boasts a 100 percent graduation rate at their Hartford, Conn., school, for example. But he pointed out that many students leave the school before graduation. The Class of 2010 dropped from 45 students to 22 in four years.
“That’s not 100 percent of their high school class,” Regunberg said, adding that a traditional public school doesn’t have the “luxury of being able to push students out.”
These critics also allege that Achievement First manipulates minorities to further their cause. In the DFER press release, the group points out that 71 percent of Achievement First’s Connecticut students are African-American, 26 percent are Hispanic and 80 percent are low-income as defined by eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch.
Warwick resident Jeremy Rix, who put himself through college to become a teacher, is unemployed and struggling to find a position as a high school history teacher. He wants to be an educator, and criticized Achievement First for what he sees as disrespect for the profession.
“Are they backing up their rhetoric with supporting teachers?” he asked.
With reports from John Howell