Coalition renews educational choice debate

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After a year’s worth of research and talking with educational groups, the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, a self-described nonpartisan think tank, published “The Case for Expanded Educational Choice,” finding that there is a disparity in the educational choices parents have for their children and the options they are seeking. One of the studies cited in the paper said that only 29 percent of Rhode Islanders would choose a government run public school as their first choice for their children.

Due to the lack of options available for both parents and students alike, a new educational campaign, Bright Today Educational Choice, led by the Rhode Island Center for Freedom, has been started with the intent to “empower parents with the freedom to choose the best educational paths for their children.”

Mike Stenhouse, CEO of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, said, “There can be no greater tragedy than parents and educators giving up on a student’s future to the point where they aren’t prepared for the real world. It is so sad to see kids giving up on themselves when they are stuck in lousy schools and have no way out.”

He believes that “sub par” and limited public school options throughout the state will continue to fail students and change needs to begin now to ensure that the maximum number of students receive the education they deserve.

“There is a general status quo mindset in this state that is resistant to change,” Stenhouse said. “This status quo is the enemy to our future. Kids can’t wait for the promises of tomorrow they need better schools for next fall.”

Superintendent of Warwick Public Schools Richard D’Agostino said that although parents have the right to choose, the public school system in Warwick is the best avenue for students to receive a full education.

He said Monday, “We have the expertise and a trained staff. There are teachers and administrators who grew up in this very system and returned to be a part of it again. There is a real dedication from everyone that the students get the best education.”

The coalition, which is backed by Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, as well as local groups, such as Rhode Island Families for School Choice, FACE of Rhode Island among others, aims to bring the debate about educational choice to the forefront. The coalition plans to introduce new legislation that would allow parents more options in choosing the educational routes for their children. These options include charter schools, private institutions, choices between districts and even home schooling.

Stenhouse said, “Technology is changing the landscape of American education. The one size fits all approach can’t possibly serve all the diverse populations and individuals this state has to offer. We know that, parents know that and even kids know that.”

One argument against choice availability is that money following students to other schools and districts will only perpetuate the problems facing public schools.

For Warwick, the public school system has already been seeing a decrease in attendance. According to Mayor Scott Avedisian, attendance has declined to 9,113 students as of mid-December. There is a belief that number will continue to fall.

Avedisian said that with Hendricken planning to open an 8th grade program, more students would be lost.

He said in an email, “As school population continues to fall and we continue to look at millions of dollars necessary to bring the schools into compliance with the fire code and other code issues, this will be one of the most important issues facing the new chairwoman of the School Committee [Jennifer Ahern] and which of the dozen or so candidates are chosen as superintendent of schools in Warwick.”

Stenhouse assures that it is a myth that public schools suffer from the introduction of educational choice. He said that not only would the state as a whole inevitably be spending more on education, but also public schools will have more money per student.

He argued that those same public schools would actually see an improvement in performance as well. Twenty-two out of the 23 studies the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity analyzed for their publication said that in the majority of districts where educational choice was introduced public schools’ performance improved overall.

Stenhouse said, “That is just the very nature of competition. When you have to get better to keep students, schools get better.”

D’Agostino, though, doesn’t agree. He said that with every loss of a student the public system loses that much more state aid.

Similarly, if that same student decides to return to the public system the same money that left with him for the other institution will remain there, not returning to the public schools.

Avedisian appears open to the idea of educational choice in not only Rhode Island as a whole but here in Warwick as well. In 2014 he had showed support for the opening of a mayoral academy that would host students from Warwick, West Warwick and Coventry.

He said, “I have been very supportive of the mayoral academy model of education as well. I am convinced that Warwick is ripe territory for a charter school to be approved, and while I would rather have some city involvement in a charter operating within the city, I have agreed to wait to see what kind of proposal the superintendent brings forward.”

Stenhouse said, “The public school system is a government-run monopoly, and that isn’t good in any form. The public school system is stuck, they are too much under the control of unions that are trying to preserve the system. We can afford to take a stand. We have nothing to lose. We understand there can be a political price to pay and that can scare some, but not us.”

In the coming weeks the coalition plans to introduce specific legislation, release more studies as well as “transparency tools” and announce fundraisers as well as events to raise awareness. RI Families for School Choice will host its annual school choice Legislative Reception at the State House on the afternoon of January 29 as part of the National School Choice Week celebration.

For more information on the campaign visit www.brighttoday.org or www.edchoiceri.org. “The Case for Expanded Educational Choice” can be accessed and read at www.rifreedom.org.

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