PROVIDENCE — When Rhode Island officials were considering an expansion of the Achievement First charter schools in Providence in 2016, the proposal faced plenty of opposition from city leaders.
Members of the City Council and school board railed against the plan. Even Mayor Jorge Elorza said he was concerned about the financial effect on his school district if the organization was allowed to pursue its goal of growing from 720 students to more than 3,100 over the course of a decade.
The expansion was ultimately approved, and Achievement First’s schools have become among the highest-performing in the state. Last year, its third-graders, most of whom live in Providence’s poorest neighborhoods, posted better test scores in math and English than their peers in suburban Barrington and East Greenwich.
But even as state and city officials mull options for reforming a Providence school system that researchers from Johns Hopkins University describe as one of the worst they’ve seen in the country, Achievement First is still facing roadblocks with its growth plan.
And, so far, an overall expansion of charter schools in Providence has not yet emerged as a top priority among decision makers in the city.
Experts who closely monitor Providence are split on the role charters might play in the broader intervention plan new Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green is expected to unveil for the capital city later this month. During a series of public hearings in recent weeks, Infante-Green has maintained the state is considering all of its options.
“Providence has all the makings of similar districts that have encouraged the growth of charter schools,” Domingo Morel, a professor at Rutgers University who grew up in Providence, said in a recent interview. “There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s an attractive place for charter schools.”
But Morel, who was part of the review team that released a devastating report on the district last month, said he’s not sure charter schools can serve all 24,000 students currently enrolled in the Providence school system. He said the city should focus on building a pipeline of teachers of color and find ways to engage families in order to improve outcomes in traditional schools — not just charters.
There are currently 23 charter school operators in Rhode Island — state law caps the number of charters at 35 — and 4,500 students who live in Providence are enrolled in those schools. The charter schools are publicly funded, nonprofit organizations that receive tuition payments from the traditional districts where their students would ordinarily be enrolled.
Achievement First runs two elementary schools and a middle school as mayoral academies, which are charter schools that serve students from a group of cities or towns and usually have a municipal chief executive as their board chair. Elorza serves as chair of Achievement First’s local board.
The organization opened its first school in Rhode Island in 2013 with the backing of then-Mayor Angel Taveras after showing success running schools in Connecticut and New York. It boasts longer school days and school years, two teachers in most classrooms, and requires its educators — who aren’t members of a union — to participate in at least 20 days of professional development a year. In contrast, teachers in traditional Providence schools have just one day of professional development a year.
By any measure, Achievement First’s results have been impressive. At one of its elementary schools 80 percent of third-graders were proficient in English and 76 percent were doing math at grade level, according to scores on the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System, or RICAS, exam. As a district, 90 percent of Providence students aren’t proficient in math.
Around 1,300 students will attend one of Achievement First’s schools this year, and it had 3,000 applications for 190 slots, director of external relations Elizabeth Winangun said. The state has already approved the organization to grow to 3,100 students by 2026, but as board chair, Elorza has the final say over the full expansion.
“My position with that has been that I’ve always been open to the growth of Achievement First because they’re hitting it out of the park, but it can’t come at the expense of the 24,000 students in Providence,” Elorza said this week.
Elorza has voiced concern that because state law requires the majority of a district’s per-pupil allocation to follow the student no matter where they attend public school, Providence is losing money every time a student opts for a charter school. In the current fiscal year, the city projects it will send more than $21 million to charter schools.
Critics of charters often argue that the schools exclude high-need students — like kids with learning disabilities — leaving traditional public schools with the more challenging task of trying to educate those students with fewer dollars. Charter operators maintain their students are selected through random lotteries.
Infante-Green and Governor Gina Raimondo have signaled support for charter schools, but they have not said whether they will support a larger expansion. Winangun, from Achievement First, said she plans to meet with state leaders in the coming weeks.
Not everyone is confident more charter schools are on the way.
Seth Andrew, a Brown University graduate who founded the highly successful Democracy Prep charter management organization, said Rhode Island creates too many hurdles for charter schools. Andrew started what is now the Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy, but he ultimately left the state. Democracy Prep now runs schools in New York; Las Vegas; Camden, N.J.; and San Antonio, Texas.
In an e-mail, Andrew said prominent charter operators are in high demand all over the country, which means they can choose locations where they might not face as much resistance as they might in Rhode Island.
“If Rhode Island really wants the best operators, they will have to make a very compelling legislative case that includes things like truly equal funding for facilities, true operational autonomy, significant start-up grants, and expanded leadership pipelines for teachers and leaders that no longer include the usual Rhode Island red-tape,” Andrew said. “It truly needs to be a brand new day.”