School & District Management

Rhode Island Law Allows Municipal Leaders to Charter Schools

By Erik W. Robelen — July 15, 2008 3 min read
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Rhode Island has enacted legislation permitting the creation of “mayoral academies”—public charter schools overseen by a group of municipal leaders and intended to serve a diverse student population regionwide.

Because of serious budget woes in the state, however, the earliest a mayoral academy could conceivably open is fall 2009.

The plan, which appears to offer a new twist on charter schooling, was spearheaded by Mayor Daniel J. McKee of Cumberland, R.I., and other city and town leaders in Rhode Island. Although the plan faced some strong opposition, it was ultimately included in the state budget signed by Gov. Donald L. Carcieri, a Republican, on June 26.

Approval of the measure comes as a moratorium on the establishment of new charter schools in Rhode Island, which currently has 11, was allowed to sunset June 30.

“We think it’s a model that is really going to work, to build out in parallel a network of high-performing public schools,” Michael C. Magee, an adviser to Mayor McKee and the director of the Cumberland office of children, youth, and learning, said of the mayoral-academies concept.

Mr. Magee emphasized that the idea offers a decidedly different approach from the mayoral takeovers in some cities, such as New York City and the District of Columbia.

“It doesn’t give mayors the authority to take over and run schools,” he said. “It allows them to partner with great [school] operators.

The idea, he said, would be to attract high-quality, nonprofit charter operators, such as Achievement First of New Haven, Conn.; the San Francisco-based Knowledge Is Power Program—or KIPP—network; and Uncommon Schools of New York City.

Its closest cousin may well be Indianapolis, where the mayor is an authorizer of charter schools.

Crossing Traditional Lines

Under the Rhode Island plan, a group of mayors and town leaders would come together to form a nonprofit board of trustees and apply to the state for permission to open charter schools. The board would contract out with a nonprofit provider to run the schools. By design, the schools would serve students regionally, crossing traditional district boundaries, and they would be admitted through community lotteries.

Mayor McKee is planning to form such a board of trustees with other leaders from the Blackstone Valley, a five-town area including Cumberland with about 28,000 public school students, nearly half of whom are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch, according to an analysis prepared for the mayor.

Unlike the state’s existing charter schools, mayoral academies would get exemptions from state provisions on teacher pay and benefits. They would not be required to follow the state’s “prevailing wage” and retirement statutes for teachers or rules on teacher seniority and tenure.

See other stories on education issues in Rhode Island. See data on Rhode Island’s public school system.

Mr. McKee said those exemptions are critical to attracting high-quality charter operators to Rhode Island, but they have sparked sharp criticism from the state’s teachers’ unions.

“The legislation was pretty ill-conceived,” said Robert A. Walsh, the executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, who argues that most Rhode Island teachers would have no interest in signing on to a school that lacks the employee protections of other public schools.

“The probability of any active teacher giving up their contractual protections, their pay and tenure and seniority, it’s not likely to happen,” said Mr. Walsh, whose union is an affiliate of the National Education Association.

He also said it’s risky to base a model on the participation of mayors.

“Most mayors have two-year terms,” the union official said. “I don’t see it as a stable way to support an experiment in public education.”

But Bryan C. Hassel, a charter schools expert based in Chapel Hill, N.C., who helped devise the Rhode Island plan, said he sees the involvement of mayors as fundamental to the approach’s promise.

“I’ve come to think mayors are ideal chartering forces because of their ability to mobilize resources and people to help the schools, but also because of their extreme accountability. Mayor McKee has to face the voters every two years.”

Mr. Walsh suggests that fact could come back to haunt Mayor McKee.

“This will be a big issue in his re-election bid,” said Mr. Walsh.

In any case, fiscal constraints in Rhode Island will prevent any new charters from opening this coming school year.

A version of this article appeared in the July 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as Rhode Island Law Allows Municipal Leaders to Charter Schools

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