PROVIDENCE – What a difference a year makes.
When Mayor Jorge Elorza raised concerns last year about a charter school organization’s expansion plan in Providence, he had a very practical reason. He was in charge of a school system with 24,000 students, and he feared that the district would not be able to absorb the financial hit if too many students left the traditional school system for public charter schools.
Now Elorza, a Democrat who is openly considering a run for governor in 2022, is publicly supporting an even larger expansion of the Achievement First Mayoral Academy, and he has also agreed to chair the board of directors for Excel Academy, the Massachusetts-based charter school organization that wants to open a school that would eventually serve nearly 2,200 students from Providence, North Providence, and Central Falls.
The mayor’s about-face in such a short period of time would ordinarily be viewed as a stunning policy shift, but he maintains that his evolution is also a practical one. In short, the state has taken over the Providence school system, so Elorza no longer has the same worries about the district’s finances that he had a year ago.
“Not having to take into account the finances and how we’re going to balance the budget, it’s a much a different consideration for me,” Elorza told the Globe on Monday. “Now it comes down to: Are they delivering for students? And the answer is unequivocally yes.”
The Rhode Island Department of Education took control of Providence schools on Nov. 1, 2019, several months after researchers from Johns Hopkins University released a scathing report that showed widespread dysfunction with nearly every facet of the district. Elorza publicly supported the takeover, although it has been less of a partnership between the city and state than he initially envisioned.
Elorza said the state has assured him that a charter school expansion wouldn’t create a budget crunch for the traditional district. If approved, Achievement First and Excel Academy alone would have nearly 8,000 students by the 2032-33 school year.
“I still see it as my responsibility to make sure that every child is receiving an education that they deserve,” Elorza said. “What is different is the school department is telling me that they’re comfortable absorbing the financial impact.”
Elorza said the phased-in approach – as opposed to adding students in one or two years – will give the district the chance to find efficiencies, which could include a reduction in teachers or the closure of school buildings. In their charter applications to the state, both Achievement First and Excel Academy suggested they may seek to utilize existing space in district buildings. A spokesman for the state declined to comment.
While two-thirds of Providence’s $394 million school budget already comes in the form of state aid, the rest is appropriated from the city by Elorza and the City Council. The state takeover requires the city to increase funding for schools at the same pace as increases in state aid, but it’s not clear if the state has the power to force the mayor and the council to raise property taxes in order to provide additional funding.
The proposed increase in charter schools has already drawn the ire of at least one city councilor. Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune, who is widely seen as an up-and-coming star in city politics, took to Twitter to say charter schools aren’t permanent solutions for the city’s struggling schools.
“We can’t narrow the achievement gap, fix buildings and ensure all have access to quality education if we push for more charters, accessible to some students, while others are left behind,” LaFortune tweeted.
Cooperate Charters aren't permanent solutions. We can’t narrow the achievement gap, fix buildings and ensure all have access to quality education if we push for more charters, accessible to some students, while others are left behind. More charters do not =education reform. https://t.co/FXJyC4z0we— Nirva LaFortune (@Nirva_LaFortune) September 29, 2020
Elorza has long said that he supports charter schools, but his concern about the district’s finances last year frustrated state Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green and members of Achievement First board – which he chairs. At one point, Elorza suggested that the state should close lower-performing charter schools in exchange for adding more seats at Achievement First, but the idea was largely dismissed.
He wound up supporting Achievement First’s plan to grow from about 1,300 students to 3,000 students, and said he did so because the state agreed to limit the growth of other charter schools. But no formal action was taken on limiting other charters, and Elorza now is supporting even larger charter growth.
Brian Gallogly, an attorney who worked in former governor Bruce Sundlun’s administration, served on Achievement First’s board for nearly six years, including last year when Elorza initially opposed the expansion. He said he was pleasantly surprised by the mayor’s change of heart.
“I am surprised to the extent that he does not seem to be as concerned this year about the city’s budget as he was a year ago,” Gallogly said.
Elorza said equity also played a significant role in his support for more charters in the capital city.
“I believe that poor people deserve choice just as much as wealthy folks,” Elorza said. “We can’t keep asking poor people to wait another generation.”