R.I. ranks 10th in national evaluation of charter schools

Despite legislative obstacles, charter schools grow from one in 1997 to 23 for current school year

Contributing Writer
Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Rhode Island’s public charter school network received high marks in a report issued by the National Alliance for Charter Schools Sept. 29, placing 10th out of 25 qualifying states and the District of Columbia  and eliciting praise from experts in the field.

Over 4 percent of the state’s 142,000 school-aged children attend charter schools, which are district-independent, publicly funded institutions, according to the latest statistics from the Rhode Island League of Charter Schools.

The state’s charter schools are run by a board of directors that is given command of internal matters such as curriculum, hiring decisions and budgeting, according to the Rhode Island Department of Education. But charter schools must also follow all state and federal regulations applicable to public schools.

The Alliance’s report took a range of factors into account in grading each state’s system, including the percentage of public schools that are classified as charter schools, the share of students within charter schools who identify as socioeconomically disadvantaged and the number of new schools opened within the given state in the last five years. Based on these criteria, only 25 states and D.C. qualified for the ranking.

Parents’ continued interest has driven the growth of the state’s charter school network from one school in 1997 to 23 by the beginning of the 2014-15 school year, said Steve Nardelli, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Charter Schools. “Last year we had 900 openings across all of the schools and over 13,000 applications,” he said.

Nardelli added that charter schools are succeeding in their mission. “Charters do exactly what their intent was, and that is to provide that quality public school choice option,” he said.

Rhode Island’s ranking placement was driven by its schools “beating the odds” in the face of some tough legislative obstacles, said Kenneth Wong, professor of education, citing a parallel report issued by the Alliance that ranked states based on the friendliness of their law codes toward charter school expansion, in which Rhode Island placed 34th out of 43 states.

The existence of a cap on the number of charters permitted in the state and the single-authorizer system, in which only the state’s board of education can enable the construction of a charter school, contributed to the low “friendliness” ranking, Wong said. Other states allow more than one authorizer, including state universities, Wong said, citing Michigan as an example.

RIDE appears set to stay the course, with about 7 percent of state aid going toward charter programs, according to RIDE’s 2014 report on the state of Rhode Island’s charter schools.

The formula for expansion will remain the same as in the past, in line with the state’s interest in supporting the network, said Elliot Krieger, public information officer for RIDE. “The law states that charters are meant to be beacons of innovation. … They are not meant to replace traditional public schools,” he said.

Krieger added that the charter cap was raised years ago, and there are currently no plans to raise it since the number of schools in the network falls below it. The charter school law passed in 1995 and, since 2010, allows for the state to have 35 charter schools, according to the Alliance’s website.

The single-authorizer system, Krieger said, also makes sense for Rhode Island. “We’re very comfortable with the council as the approval source, because their responsibility is for all education statewide,” he said.

Nardelli also said he supported the maintenance of the single-authorizer system, but stated that there would be a push to raise the cap. “We’re certainly going to be addressing that in the near future, because we feel that the demand (for additional charter schools) is there,” he said.

Rhode Island was one of two New England states to qualify for the Alliance’s ranking, along with sixth-place-ranked Massachusetts. The District of Columbia, Louisiana and Michigan filled the ranking’s top three spots, while Utah, Oregon and Nevada rounded out the bottom of the list.