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School board vote leaves possibility of new charter in Providence

The Rhode Island Board of Regents sent education activists back to the drawing board last Thursday when it rejected a controversial application for a semi-public Cranston charter school. The application, submitted by the nonprofit Achievement First, proposed creating an elementary mayoral academy — a charter school supported by the mayor — in Cranston's Edgewood neighborhood, the school would be funded by state and local governments as well as private donations.

Supporters pointed to Achievement First's strong track record in raising test scores among minority and low-income students. Both Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung voiced their support for the mayoral academy.

But opponents of the proposed academy ­— including teachers' unions, school administrators and some parents ­— charged that charter schools often divert resources from public education and cited evidence that charters fare no better on average than public schools in their educational outcomes. The proposed school would not be unionized.

The board's decision came mere hours after they received a letter from Gov. Lincoln Chafee '75 P'14 indicating that the governor could offer his support if the school were located in Providence rather than in Cranston. The letter encouraged Achievement First to re-apply for a location in Providence.

"I don't think people in Providence have any idea what the mayoral academy is, or what it means in terms of funding," said Anna Kuperman, a teacher at Classical High School in Providence. Kuperman, a founder of the Coalition to Defend Public Education, has been a vocal opponent of mayoral academies — semi-public charter schools like those Achievement First operates. She said her "little coalition" plans on engaging in outreach and public education campaigns similar to those that preceded the recent board vote. The coalition's efforts, she said,  generated enough community comment to postpone the vote more than once.

Steve Smith, the president of the Providence Teachers Union, said the union will be "working all fronts — political fronts, organizing in the community, engaging the media" to prevent a mayoral academy from opening in Providence. Unlike in Cranston, where the school board is elected, Providence's school board and superintendent are appointed by the mayor. Smith said this makes it more difficult for opponents to the proposed school because the Providence school board and superintendent, who must approve a potential mayoral academy, function as a "rubber stamp for the mayor."

Taveras, who submitted an enthusiastic letter of support for the Cranston academy to the board a week before the vote, is preparing for the possibility of a mayoral academy coming to Providence.

"The mayor looks forward to meeting with (Education) Commissioner (Deborah) Gist and Achievement First to discuss the situation and explore our options moving into the future," David Ortiz, the mayor's press secretary, said.

Maryellen Butke, the executive director of RI-CAN, an advocacy group dedicated to education reform, expressed disappointment in the vote but said she hopes it will provoke Rhode Islanders to tackle education reform more proactively. "The vote was a rallying cry for support," she said. "We have to get everyday voices in the mix." She added that she feels the debate has been dominated by adults seeking to preserve the status quo in public education.

Achievement First is also in the process of examining its options for the future. Reshma Singh, senior director of Achievement First's Rhode Island expansion, told the Providence Journal that she was encouraged by Chafee's letter and that the company would discuss the possibility of opening a school in Providence.

But the governor's eleventh hour appeal to the board has attracted criticism. "Eleventh hour? More like eleventh-and-a-half hour," Smith said. "It only confused the issue."  

Chafee has been wary of supporting charter schools in the past. In January, he called for a "thoughtful pause" on opening new charter schools in order to analyze performance data on existing charters. His letter to the board has led some to call his platform inconsistent, a charge which his communications director denies.

"We have taken a thoughtful pause, and after listening to all sides, meeting with different people and stakeholders, community support for a mayoral academy in Cranston was lacking," Hunsinger said. She said that the governor views charter schools as a tool to improve public education, and that he is still open to the possibility of bringing mayoral academies to the state.


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