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The Rhode Island General Assembly is weighing a considerable gamble, but the odds are in the state's favor. Today, legislators will vote on several bills dealing with public charter schools. The key proposals include increasing the cap on the number of charters from 20 to 35 and allowing Education Commissioner Deborah Gist to dissolve those that do not show appreciable progress for three years in a row.

The benefits of charters themselves are debatable, but there is a more concrete bonus at stake. The legislation would bring state policy more closely in line with the terms of a federal competition for educational funding known as the Race to the Top. President Barack Obama's 2009 stimulus bill set aside $4 billion for Education Secretary Arne Duncan to apportion to state systems at his discretion. Duncan and his staff have developed a complex and extensive set of criteria that in part favor states that do not place a cap on the number of charter schools.

Rhode Island was among 16 finalists in the Race, and under the established terms of the contest it stands to rake in between $20 million and $75 million when the winners are announced on April 1 — though Duncan has reserved the option of readjusting the prize structure. Gist will travel to Washington, D.C. tomorrow, to present Rhode Island's case. 

Gist and Duncan have respectable reasons for pushing charters, which do not have to comply with some of the regulations that standardize the schedules and curricula of other public schools. This leaves charters free to specialize and experiment: One currently under development in Rhode Island focuses on performing arts; another is environmentally themed. Educators can apply the lessons of these ventures to more conventionally structured school settings.

Ironically, it turns out that public education policy is one of the areas where people most routinely forget that correlation does not equal causation. Teachers' unions and others wary of the expansion of charters are fond of pointing out that students at traditional public schools tend to perform worse overall when charters open nearby; they blame the disrupting effects of changes to the established system. Meanwhile, charter advocates point to examples such as two Providence schools with rigorous curricula and predominantly low-income students who graduated their entire senior classes last year. 

However, both sides frequently overlook one critical factor. Charter schools are widely believed to be a superior option to their traditional public counterparts. And parents with the drive, knowledge and connections to secure a spot at a charter for their child are more likely to actively assist in that child's education. This lurking variable may account for much of the success of charter schools and the relative decline of some surrounding districts. 

To wit, the reforms before the General Assembly today are not an absolutely sure bet. But the proposal has teacher union support, and with 3,600 Rhode Island students currently on waiting lists for charter schools, legislators should not hesitate to vote yes. 

Indeed, the overall package is highly enticing: It entails the opportunity for more specialized and efficient education; the safeguard of the commissioner's power to abrogate underperforming charters; and the chance for much-needed Beltway largesse. Legislators, administrators and union officials deserve credit for the hard work and difficult compromises that produced today's proposals. 

Editorials are written by The Herald's editorial page board. Send comments to editorials (at)



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