Charter School Backers Claim R.I. Law Is Too Restrictive

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Even as plans for what could be Rhode Island's first charter school move ahead, the 1995 state law allowing such schools is under fire from some charter school proponents.

The state school board gave preliminary approval to a charter application from the city of Woonsocket last month. But some local school board members who like the idea of charter schools say a publicly supported independent school cannot be independent enough under the current law.

Although a majority of Woonsocket's school board members support the plans for a charter school--and their approval isn't necessary to move ahead--Vice Chairman John Ward warned that the state charter law could eventually cause insurmountable obstacles for the group hoping to start the new school.

"The charter school concept is a good idea," Mr. Ward said. "With the way the state law is written, it can't work."

The Rhode Island law allows only public schools, public school districts, or public school employees to apply for a charter.

It further mandates that a charter school's teachers remain employees of the district and that they "remain members of the collective bargaining unit for teachers in the school district."

Mr. Ward argues that the mandates preclude the flexibility charter schools need to be truly different from what the local public schools can offer. The law, he contends, puts those running a charter school in the position of negotiating contract changes with teachers who are still employees of the district.

"It limits the ability of the charter school to use alternative pay levels and incentives as means of using a more cost-effective program," Mr. Ward said.

State union officials, however, say the law doesn't create obstacles. Changes to teacher's working conditions--such as scheduling--are possible under the law through waivers, said Marcia Reback, the president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers.

The law does not permit such waivers for issues of salaries, fringe benefits, and grievance procedures, she added. "We wanted to make sure the charter schools were not used to get cheap labor."

Concern About Dropouts

Though the organizers are still ironing out the details of their application, the group hoping to start the Woonsocket charter school would like it to be different from the district's existing schools. For starters, they would like the school year to run 200 days instead of the usual 180.

The organizers want to address the concerns of many in the city who say the 6,400-student district needs an alternative to its only high school, where the dropout rate is more than 25 percent.

"A lot of the students around middle school, for some reason or another, have had good records, but we lose them in those years," said Judy Gravel, a local parent who joined the district employees pushing for the new school.

The group proposed starting with spots for about 65 students. The school would target students at risk of dropping out of high school and provide a curriculum that emphasizes the connection between school and work.

"We're looking at students who are having a tough time, but working hard," said Denis H. Fortier, the chairman of the city's school board, who also sat on the charter school's proposal committee.

Mr. Fortier agrees that Rhode Island's charter law is restrictive, but he still feels the Woonsocket proposal can work.

"I would prefer that we were not forced to work with the union," he said. "But the law is there, and it's a start."

Clearing a 'Minefield'

Concerns about contract entanglements aren't keeping supporters from appointing a committee that will draft the specifics of the school's program, including its building location, curriculum, and additional funding.

Under the law, local and state school aid follows students from the school district to the charter school. But organizers say they will need substantial outside help from grants and other sources before they can open the new school by next fall.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ward said he has been in touch with his state representative about introducing an amendment to the charter law this year that would allow school organizers more autonomy.

"I don't want to stop the process they've begun," he said of the Woonsocket plan. "I'm trying to clear a minefield so they don't get killed halfway through the process."

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