CASTING THEIR VOTES: The Board of Regents, joined by Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist, consider the proposal. Gist was in support of the plan.
Several dozen parents and teachers got up and walked out halfway through a meeting of the Board of Regents Thursday, shaking their heads and shouting out comments like, “shame on you,” after the board voted 5-4 to grant preliminary approval to the Achievement First mayoral academy proposal.
The first AF elementary school is slated to open in fall of 2013, with another school opening in 2014, and both would include students from Warwick, Cranston, Providence and North Providence.
The current proposal was submitted fresh on the heels of the Regents’ denial of a similar application from Achievement First that applied to students only in Cranston and Providence. The initial proposal was met with vehement opposition from Cranston teachers, who turned out in force during the second round of public hearings. While Warwick teachers were largely absent from public comment, Warwick Teachers Union President James Ginolfi says their opposition is no less fervent.
“I’m totally disappointed. There was hardly any support from the community on this,” he said.
Like other education stakeholders opposed to the proposal, Ginolfi fears the school’s approval was a “foregone conclusion,” based on the support of Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist and the fact that increasing charter schools was a component that helped Rhode Island secure Race to the Top dollars.
Former Rep. Douglas Gablinske (D-Bristol) argued that the Race to the Top application should be a factor in the Regents’ decision. He was the prime sponsor of a bill to lift the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in Rhode Island.
“That legislation was a key component to the Race to the Top federal funding application,” he said.
While he conceded that charters are not the “end all and be all” of education, he strongly believes they are a crucial component in improving education in the Ocean State.
“Charter schools strive for excellence and are outcome-driven. Charter schools are child-centered, rather than adult-centered,” he said.
The financial impact the schools could have on the district remains unclear. AF supporters point out that under the new fair funding formula, the money follows the student. So, if no Warwick students apply for the lottery system, or if none are selected, no Warwick education dollars would be allotted to the mayoral academy.
Opponents, however, argue that the loss of funding does not represent a true savings to the district. For example, if two students were to leave every elementary school in Warwick, the reduction in student population would not be enough to warrant cutting a teaching position or significantly reducing materials. Even so, each student would result in approximately $14,000 leaving the district for Achievement First (that figure varies significantly based on special needs).
“That doesn’t equate to an equal loss in expenses,” Ginolfi said. “That money is for public schools. If some private entity wants to come in here, then they should bear the burden themselves. Why should we be funding a corporation?”
Providence parent Megan Hines does fear that, down the line, opening a mayoral academy could result in further school closures. Providence has closed four schools in the past five years.
“As public school students leave the school district for the promise of Achievement First, school after school will close,” she said. “Achievement First is wrong for my city and wrong for Rhode Island.”
Chris Mastrangelo, a Providence resident and a member of Occupy Providence, called the proposal a “disaster,” and said the short-term student performance results would not outweigh the long-term damages caused to the sending distracts through loss in funding. He believes the AF model is worrisome because it allows private business to influence public education.
“Achievement First bills itself as the face of education reform, but they care nothing about education and even less about reform,” he said.
“There’s a lot of education dollars – public dollars – at stake here that companies want to get their hands on,” he said.
Providence City Councilman Brian Principe requested that the board delay a decision, which Board of Regents member Colleen Callahan agreed to.
“I am very concerned … particularly in light of the very strong opposition, particularly among elected officials,” she said. “I think we need to go back to the drawing board.”
Despite her plea, the Regents cut public comment short last week and decided to vote on the mayoral charter that has been on the table in one form or another for nearly two years.
The vote came down to a tie, with Callahan, Mathies Santos, Dr. Robert Carothers and Carolina Bernal voting against approval. Members Patrick Guida, Lorne Adrain, Karin Forbes and Betsy Shimberg voted to approve, and Chairman George Caruolo broke the tie.
Achievement First can now move forward with their proposal, finding a facility, developing student recruitment strategies and outlining more specific plans for the schools, to the Rhode Island Department of Education.
“Achievement First appreciates the Board of Regents’ substantive and deliberate review of our application,” Reshma Singh, vice president of external relations for Achievement First, said in a release. “We are honored to join the many others who seek to provide more excellent school options for Rhode Island students and families. We look forward to working with all stakeholders to improve educational outcomes for every child in Rhode Island.”
This is the end of the road for opponents, but Ginolfi said he plans to work on legislation to put control back in the hands of local school committees. He believes, in the future, a mayoral academy or other charter school application should have local committee support in order to proceed. In this application, only the Providence School Committee, which is appointed by applicant Mayor Angel Taveras, was in support of the plan.