As parents send their children off to school and policymakers gear up for the new fiscal year, the debate over the quality of primary and secondary education in Rhode Island is taking center stage once again. One of the more controversial facets of the discussion is whether families opt for charter or private schools over the traditional public school system.
“We should empower parents in any way we can,” said Deacon Stephen Raymond, director of operations at St. Patrick Academy, a private Catholic school in Providence. “Parents are the primary educators of students, not the state.” If a public school district is failing, parents should be empowered to make a better educational decision for their child, he added.
But critics of non-public options assert that school choice can have segregative effects. A 2002 study from the University of Santa Clara and the Joint Center for Poverty Research found that white students were more likely to enroll in private schools if they lived in racially diverse school districts.
Some argue that Rhode Island policies further complicate this problem. While some states provide voucher programs to families struggling with the price tag of sending their children to private schools, Rhode Island provides tax credits to businesses that sponsor scholarships to private schools instead, as The Herald previously reported.
Still, not all non-public schools are havens for the wealthy. Raymond said that St. Patrick Academy, just one example of a private school in a local neighborhood, does not function as a way for privileged students to escape the Providence school district. Rather, two-thirds of the school’s students receive free or reduced lunches, and “nearly 100 percent of our students receive financial aid.”
Opting out of the public school system altogether is not the only way that parents exercise school choice — deciding where to purchase a home can have segregative effects on the public school system as well, said Matthew Chingos, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a public policy think tank.
Charter schools can break this cycle, providing students living in neighborhoods with scant funding an opportunity to attend a better-funded school. But charter schools, too, are not isolated from the neighborhoods in which they arise: For example, a 2011 study published by Arizona State University found that charter schools are more likely to pop up outside of predominantly black neighborhoods.
In Rhode Island, the discussion on charter schools remains contentious. Charter schools serve a small fraction of students, said Barry Ricci, superintendent of the Chariho School District in southern Rhode Island. Charter schools yield the same educational results as public schools, but with a multi-million dollar price tag, he said, adding that he had heard anecdotal evidence of charter schools leading to racial segregation.
It is the responsibility of educators to lift “all students to higher levels of achievement,” Ricci said. The funding that goes to charter schools could be better put toward investment in public school development, supplying funds for, among other assets, high-quality instructors who can foster greater academic accountability in students, he said. “I don’t think we can afford free choice, and free choice isn’t helping all kids.”