In the early evening of Jan. 29, the statehouse dome glowed bright yellow for School Choice Week. Earlier that day, as both chambers of the General Assembly met, the rotunda bustled with uniformed schoolchildren, school administrators, religious officials and concerned parents. Though their dress code varied from business suits to prep-school uniforms, all of these individuals sported the same embroidered yellow scarves. The accessory signaled their participation in a legislative session seeking to call attention to the much-debated issue of school choice.
Advocates of school choice promote government subsidies for parents to send their kids to private schools. “Anything that empowers parents promotes the general welfare of our state,” said Deacon Steve Raymond, director of operations at Saint Patrick Academy, a co-educational Catholic high school in downtown Providence.
Discussion of school choice is extremely active at the moment. The legislative reception took place during National School Choice Week, over the course of which more than 11,000 related events took place throughout the country, said keynote speaker Rabbi A. D. Motzen, national director of state relations for Agudath Israel of America — a religious policy organization that supports the national school choice movement — during his address.
Rhode Island Families for School Choice, one of many organizations that advocates school choice in the state, hosted the event, but the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice were also featured prominently.
Organizations that support expanded school choice options outline several possible structures for funding: tax-credit scholarships, educational savings accounts and vouchers.
Currently, Rhode Island implements the tax-credit scholarship form of school choice. Under this system, scholarship-granting organizations or businesses that support private school scholarships receive state tax credits. Education savings accounts would allow families to collect money used for educational purposes from family members, state agencies and charities in savings accounts, while the voucher system would direct state money to the schools of families’ choosing.
As proponents of school choice in Rhode Island frequently reiterate, school choice laws exist throughout the United States in various forms. “There are 24 states and the District of Columbia that have some form of school choice,” said Michael Chartier, director of state programs and government relations for the Friedman Foundation. Additionally, charter school laws currently exist in 42 states and D.C., according to “The ABCs of School Choice,” a promotional document from the Foundation.
While school choice advocacy groups actively support government-subsidized private education, they also agree with the proposed expansion of charter schools throughout the state. Charter schools, while publicly funded and tuition-free, comprise their own school districts and are not subject to the same regulations as traditional public schools. Five Rhode Island charter schools have made requests to expand, generating much debate.
Deborah Gist, commissioner of the Rhode Island Department of Education, expressed support of the expansion in January, NBC 10 News reported. Gist’s contract, which will expire in June, was not renewed by the Rhode Island Board of Education before the December deadline, RIPR reported. Gist is now the sole finalist for the job of superintendent of the public school system in Tulsa, her hometown.
The primary criticism of the expansion of charter schools — and of the school choice movement in general — is that it starves the traditional public school system of funding. Many proponents of charter school expansion and school choice argue that when a child leaves a traditional school district, funding stays while expenses go.
A House resolution sponsored by Rep. Jeremiah O’Grady, D-Lincoln and Pawtucket, and passed last year created a 12-person commission to study the state’s funding formula and whether it is disadvantageous to local public schools, according to a General Assembly press release.
Mike Stenhouse, CEO of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, said that funding for public schools will be preserved with school choice legislation. “There’s a lot of myths about school choice, and one of them is that they financially burden existing … public school systems,” he said. “The way we will design the bill — or advise the bill to be designed — is that there would be more money per student left over than there is now.”
But Barry Ricci, superintendent of the Chariho school district, said this notion is incorrect. When students leave for charter schools, the expenses do not leave with them, he said. While he only has experience with students leaving for charter schools, the situation could be similar if students departed for private schools, he said.
The Statehouse reception featured reception tables for several private schools — the type that students benefitting from state tax credit scholarships could attend. Of the private schools, almost all had a religious affiliation. A small number of charter schools were also present.