PROVIDENCE — Governor Daniel J. McKee on Wednesday vowed to testify against legislation that would slap a three-year moratorium on charter school expansion in Rhode Island.
McKee – a former Cumberland mayor who was the driving force behind Rhode Island’s mayoral academies, a form of publicly funded charter schools – stopped short of saying he would veto the bill if it landed on his desk.
“We’ll cross that bridge when it comes,” he said. “I think the legislation is not strong enough to pass.”
In February, the state Senate voted 30 to 6 to place a three-year moratorium on new charter schools and charter expansions, and Representative William W. O’Brien, a North Providence Democrat and Providence public school teacher, has introduced a moratorium bill that has been sent to the House Finance Committee.
“I absolutely do plan to testify,” McKee said in a wide-ranging interview with the Globe, in which he blasted the legislation. “That’s not a plan. That is not a plan to help our schools in our state.”
McKee, who has served on the board of Blackstone Valley Prep mayoral academy in Cumberland, rejected the argument that charter schools will siphon badly needed financial resources away from already cash-strapped school districts because per-pupil funding follows students to charter schools.
“The financial issues they are talking about, by the way, it’s a big lie, the whole premise that somehow it’s going to hurt district schools,” he said. “In Cumberland, our schools got better. Our schools never ran a deficit.”
McKee also rejected the idea that charter expansions would drive up taxes. “Cumberland was managed very well when I was there,” he said. “We are not spiking taxes in that community.”
McKee noted that some charter schools have already won preliminary approval but now face uncertainty because of the proposed three-year “pause.”
“They want to stop schools that are in the pipeline from actually operating, even though those schools have found locations and they have hired staff and committed to parents,” he said. “So that is the biggest issue with this legislation – trying to stop the schools that have been approved.” He predicted the proposed moratorium will produce an “outcry” from parents who want to send their children to charter schools.
The state Council on Elementary and Secondary Education has approved the expansion of charter schools such as Achievement First Rhode Island and the creation of new charter schools such as Providence Preparatory Charter School. Earlier this week, McKee announced that he has hired Elizabeth Winangun, a former director of external relations at Achievement First, as his deputy policy director.
He said his administration is putting together a two-year plan for getting students back into classrooms in September and addressing the learning lost to the pandemic. “My feeling is we need plans that actually are effective,” he said.
McKee also addressed the “Act on Climate” bill, which the Senate passed by a 33 to 4 vote on Tuesday. The bill would make the state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals mandatory and enforceable. He stopped short of promising to sign the legislation, which is expected to pass the House, but said he will “take a real close look” at it.
“Look, this is where we are heading,” McKee said. “Rhode Island has made a great investment in all the issues that have to do with renewables. We are going to continue to do that. We will take a close look and make sure the bill that was passed makes sense. But this is where we are going.”
On Friday, the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear testimony on a variety of gun bills, including proposals to ban firearms on school grounds, ban gun magazines that hold 10 or more rounds, and ban “assault weapons.”
McKee, who received an “F” rating from the National Rifle Association in 2018, said he would look at what legislation passes. “But I’m on the record supporting a safe gun-control strategy,” he said. For example, he has expressed support in the past for a proposed ban on “assault weapons,” he said.
During the 2018 lieutenant governor’s race, McKee opposed legalizing marijuana. But as governor, he just proposed a state budget that would legalize and regulate recreational marijuana.
In explaining that change of position, McKee noted that Massachusetts has already legalized recreational cannabis, and he said Rhode Island can learn from its neighbor’s experience. “The landscape is changing,” he said. “We are in a whole new area right now.”'
Raimondo had proposed state-run marijuana stores much like New Hampshire’s state-run liquor stores. But McKee said, “I want an entrepreneurial strategy. There are many small businesses that have invested a great deal in the cultivation. We need to protect those small businesses, which is very consistent with where I am.”
His budget proposal would roll out 25 retail marijuana licenses each year for three years, with some set aside for minority-owned businesses. “That is one of those economic opportunities that we need to make sure that we spread intentionally amongst everybody in the state, including the minority business owners,” he said.
McKee also provided an update on the process of choosing his successor as lieutenant governor.
A total of 81 people have applied for the position, and McKee said his team talked to anyone who requested an interview. “We are whittling it down to 10 candidates, or in that range, that are going to be given a second interview,” he said. “And then I’ll be given a handful of people to interview.”
McKee said he expects to make the final decision in about three weeks. “It’s a process that is taking a little bit longer than I would have anticipated when we first started,” he said. “But we have many, many people that showed an interest in helping the state.”
Some of those who applied might be good candidates for joining the administration or state boards and commissions, he said.
Insiders expect the choice to come down to Providence City Council President Sabina Matos, former Central Falls Mayor James A. Diossa, state Senator Louis P. DiPalma, and Democratic National Committeewoman Elizabeth Beretta-Perik. But McKee said, “At this point in time, that decision has not been made.”
McKee cited his accomplishments as lieutenant governor, saying he will be looking for someone “who really understands that office and will use that office as it was intended.”
He said he favors changing the state constitution to allow the governor and lieutenant governor run as a team in future elections. In the next 17 months, he said, he and his lieutenant governor choice will show “the real value of running as a team and then managing as a team.”