PROVIDENCE – Mayor Jorge Elorza said Sunday he is prepared to support the high-performing Achievement First charter school’s plan to open an additional elementary school, but he will ask the state to limit the expansion of other charter schools in Providence.
The mayor said he will inform Achievement First’s board of directors – which he chairs – of his proposal at a meeting Monday morning. He said the plan has the support of Governor Gina Raimondo, but it must be approved by the state Council on Elementary and Secondary Education.
The idea marks a slight change of course for the second-term mayor, who drew criticism from state leaders in August for suggesting he’d be willing to support the expansion of Achievement First if other low-performing charter schools were closed down.
But Elorza said the latest proposal accomplishes the same goal: It would allow Achievement First to grow while limiting the number of traditional public school students in Providence – and the per-pupil state aid that comes with them – who can leave for charter schools.
“I’m going to support the expansion of Achievement First to 3,000 students while also achieving the second goal of limiting the financial impact on the school department,” Elorza said in a telephone interview on Sunday.
A spokesperson for Achievement First did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday.
Achievement First, a charter management organization that also runs schools in New York and Connecticut, currently has 1,300 students from Providence, Cranston, Warwick and North Providence enrolled in its grades kindergarten through seventh grade. It already has the go-ahead from the state to open a high school when its current students reach the ninth grade.
The Council on Elementary and Secondary Education has also approved Achievement First to grow to 3,000 students by opening another elementary school, but Elorza convinced the organization’s board of directors to grant him veto power of that expansion in 2016.
Elorza has been under mounting pressure from Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green and the governor’s office to allow Achievement First to grow since the state announced plans to take control of Providence’s school system in July. Infante-Green has repeatedly called on the mayor to allow the expansion.
Infante-Green is expected to release her final order for the state takeover this week, although she has been tight-lipped about whether her plan for improving outcomes in Providence will include more charter schools. She plans to hire a new superintendent by the end of the month.
Achievement First’s students were among the top performers in the state on the 2018 Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System exam, leading supporters to argue the school is proving that low-income students have the ability to outperform their more affluent peers in suburban districts.
Achievement First offers students longer school days and an extended school year, while offering its non-unionized workforce more professional development than Providence’s traditional public schools. Critics say their students have the advantage of coming from families who prioritize education, while traditional public schools are required to accept students no matter their background.
Elorza has been on the Achievement First board since before he became mayor, and has been chairman since 2015. He has previously said he would support an expansion of the school, but he has warned that he also needs to prioritize the 24,000 students who are currently enrolled in Providence’s traditional public schools.
The latest plan is designed to address those concerns. He acknowledged the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education would need to sign off on limiting future charter school expansions to high-quality schools. The council would likely be required to craft new requirements for how to determine a stronger charter school from a weak one.
More than 4,500 students from Providence attend charter schools, but Elorza said he is concerned that new proposals for schools with no track record for success have been approved in recent years.
“What I have spoken with the state and the governor about is instead of prioritizing the unproven charter schools, let’s prioritize the expansion of proven charter schools,” Elorza said.
A spokesperson for Raimondo said Sunday that while approval of charter schools is up to the council, “the governor does agree that expansion should focus on high-quality seats.”
It’s unclear how Elorza’s proposal will be received by other charter school leaders, who have said he doesn’t have the authority the weigh in on their schools. Elorza said he believes he has crafted a “compelling” compromise that is a win for Achievement First and his school system.
“The mayor’s job is to be practical and do what I think gets results for our kids,” he said. “This is something that is consistent with my position.”