The Board of Regents of the Rhode Island Department of Education voted 5-4 last night in favor of a proposal to allow Achievement First, a nonprofit that has established charter schools throughout New England, to continue plans to bring two corporate charter schools to Providence.
City Councilman Bryan Principe hosted a press conference yesterday morning urging the Board of the Regents to postpone the vote. Principe has been a leader in the movement against Achievement First and spoke to the board at last night's meeting.
"There is widespread community opposition to this plan," he said. Principe presented a long list of those opposed to Achievement First, including 22 members of the General Assembly, seven members of the Providence City Council and 33 various community, parent and labor organizations.
Megan Hines, a mother of two living on the West Side of Providence — where four public schools were closed last year due to budget shortages — told the board she feared the addition of a corporate charter school to the city would lead to further closures because of the state education funding policy, whereby the funding follows the child. If a child were to leave a public school in favor of a charter school, that school would lose the funds it received for that child. It is estimated that the charter school would siphon an additional $6 million from public schools, she said, which would lead to a "domino effect," with school after school being closed.
"If we're going to have a charter school, let's do it right," Hines added. Instead of a corporate model, she said the city should pursue community-based models.
"Achievement First is wrong for my city and wrong for Rhode Island," she said.
Chris Mastrangelo, a member of Occupy Providence and longtime Providence citizen, also questioned how the city could afford to transfer funds from public schools to an Achievement First charter school after last year's school closures.
"These aren't reformers, these are vultures — which smell, honestly," he said.
"The people who are pushing for this reform aren't going to be around when the damage is done. The (Providence Mayor) Angel Taverases, the (Education Commissioner) Deborah Gists, they're not going to be around when the damage is done," Mastrangelo said. "They will have moved on to sunnier pastures, as they always do."
"The corporate model has consistently exploited special-needs students," he added, referring to accusations that Achievement First schools have a history of neglecting the needs of disabled and English language learning students.
"This is robbing students for the benefit of Wall Street," Mastrangelo said, "which is a crime."
Aaron Regunberg '12 shared a letter from May Ferrow-Mosleh, a parent leadership committee board member at an Achievement First school in New York. In the letter, she wrote that the strict disciplinary measures at the school had a negative effect on the students.
"Children will have lost the love of learning and never have dreams," Regunberg read. "I have seen previously very smart children sink into depression."
She also accused the charter school of sending students home with letters just weeks before state examinations asking parents to contact doctors to give students notes to allow for extended time on the tests.
Before the vote, Colleen Callahan, secretary for the Board of Regents, voiced her own concerns about the proposal. "We need to go back to the drawing board," she said. "We need to look at the things people have said."
Callahan was one of four board members to vote against allowing Achievement First to move forward in Providence.
Douglas Gablinske, president of Appraise R.I., a residential appraisal service, spoke in support of Achievement First.
"I do not believe that charter schools are the end-all and be-all of education," he said at the meeting. But "charter schools are a very important component in changing the direction of educational outcomes in Rhode Island."
"Charter schools strive for excellence and are innovative," he said, because "they are child-centered, not adult-centered."
Board of Regents Chairman George Caruolo recognized the vote was tied before casting the deciding vote in favor of the proposal. After he announced the decision, cries of disapproval broke out from the crowd.
"People have the right to actual schools that work for them," Mastrangelo shouted at the board. "Children have the right to actual schools that work for them."
After the vote was announced, Bill Fischer, spokesman for the Rhode Island Mayoral Academy, declined to comment on the accusations made during the meeting. "We're more concerned about looking forward at this point in time," he said.
"The board was able to cut through the noise and choose what's best for Providence students," he added.