RIPEC report: State should support charter school expansion

PROVIDENCE – Among its recommendations for lawmakers regarding addressing charter schools in the state, the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council stated Thursday that the state should support new charter public schools and expanding current charters as opposed to imposing a moratorium on charter expansion.

The recommendations were part of RIPEC’s new report, titled “An Analysis of Charter Public Schools in Rhode Island.” The report, released Thursday, outlines the history and legal framework of charters across the Ocean State, enrollment, financial structures, demographic data and student outcomes.

The full report can be read here.

RIPEC in the report states that the demand for a charter school education is continuing to outpace the number of available seats in 22 schools located in 10 communities across Rhode Island. The council said there were 5.4 unique applicants for every one charter school seat in the 2020-21 academic year.

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Recently, three new charters and three charter expansions were approved by the R.I. Council on Postsecondary Education, which RIPEC said would increase charter seat availability by 55% over the next decade.

RIPEC’s recommendation to create new charters and expand existing ones, though, are counter to the current movement in the R.I. General Assembly. Legislation introduced this year calling for suspending charter creations and expansions for three years was recently passed in the Senate – and under consideration in the House of Representatives – restarting a long-standing debate over charters in Rhode Island.

RIPEC said the legislation, if approved, would “retroactively reverse” the recent approvals granted by the postsecondary council to charters. Gov. Daniel J. McKee, who helped create Rhode Island’s first mayoral academy public charter school – Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy – and served on its board while he was mayor of Cumberland, opposes the charter moratorium legislation.

Additionally, 80% of students attending charter schools reside in Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls and Woonsocket, RIPEC’s report said, further noting that charter students are more likely to come from low-income families (71%) than public school students overall (47.8%).

Charter school students have also outperformed district students in the 2018-19 Rhode Island Common Assessment System in both English language arts/literature (42.2% proficiency compared to 38.3%) and in math (38.3% to 29.4%), RIPEC found.

Finances are also a core element in the battle over charters in the state. RIPEC said in the report that the state’s funding system requires sending districts to provide their local per-pupil share charters for each student enrolled in a charter, and districts also lose the state per-pupil share for each charter-attending student.

Therefore, RIPEC said sending districts can withhold a portion of their local shares for other costs, such as teacher pension obligations. All districts, RIPEC said, hold back at least 7% of their local shares from their charter tuition payments. Woonsocket, RIPEC said, held back 25.8% of its local shares from their charter payments in the 2021 fiscal year.

Factoring in all funding sources, including federal, state and private, charter school’s per-pupil expenses, at $15,444, were 16.4% lower than the $17,983 state per-pupil expense, RIPEC said, and lower in every district except Woonsocket.

“If charters overall were a district, they would be the second lowest [district] in the state in terms of per-pupil expenditures,” Justine Oliva, RIPEC’s manager of research, said Wednesday. Olivia also said the report notes that charters are reimbursed for construction costs at a lower rate than traditional public schools.

To address the financial issues, RIPEC recommends lawmakers to consider adopting glidepath payments to sending districts, akin to what Massachusetts does, to account for transitional financial challenges expanding charters have on traditional schools. Oliva said in Massachusetts, when a first-year student gets sent to a charter, sending districts receives 100% of its share of state funding and then 25% in subsequent years.

Oliva clarified that while RIPEC isn’t recommending that Rhode Island follow Massachusetts’ exact model, lawmakers should look into the Bay State’s model because the state recognizes there are transitional challenges existing. RIPEC also said there is funding available in the American Rescue Plan Act to help with K-12 education.

RIPEC also recommends that there is room for the R.I. Department of Education to take more rigorous action to either improve low-performing charter schools or revoke their charters.

Oliva told Providence Business News that RIPEC hopes lawmakers will read the report and the facts laid out within it. She also said RIPEC CEO and President Michael DiBiase has also recently testified against the moratorium legislation.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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