School Choice & Charters

Rhode Island Coalition Aims to Start Network of Regional Charters

By Scott J. Cech — December 18, 2007 3 min read
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If Cumberland, R.I., Mayor Daniel J. McKee and a coalition of other Rhode Island town leaders have their way, they’ll ditch public education’s current bureaucracy and start over with a clean slate. It’s just not clear yet exactly what they will be able to write on it.

The plan, as Mr. McKee and his Coalition of Communities Improving Rhode Island were planning to announce it late last week, is to set up a regional, mayorally headed network of charter schools—something that charter school experts say has never been attempted in quite the way the coalition is proposing.

Michael Magee, the director of Cumberland’s Office of Children, Youth, and Learning and a key adviser to Mayor McKee, said the idea was born of both fiscal necessity and some blue-sky imaginings about the ideal school setup for the area’s students.

“What would Rhode Island public education look like if you wanted to build it from scratch, and your only parameters were that you need to hold down costs and improve [academic] performance?” Mr. Magee asked. “What we’re saying to the public is that we can actually give the region [both]. What we need is the flexibility to do it.”

Up Against Cap

The coalition, comprising about a dozen community governments representing about 350,000 people, even has a first school site picked out: a recently vacated former Catholic school in Cumberland, located near a neighboring town’s border and on a thoroughfare that connects many municipalities.

The coalition estimates that the school, which it says would be operated by an outside charter school company such as the San Francisco-based nonprofit Knowledge Is Power Program or the New York City-based nonprofit charter-management organization Uncommon Schools, could be up and running in time for the 2009-10 school year.

But a hurdle is the statewide cap of 20 charter schools, and a moratorium on top of that preventing even authorized additions to the 11 charters now operating from opening.

Mr. Magee said that when the state legislature convenes in January, it could authorize the Cumberland mayor to charter the schools himself. So far, Indianapolis is the only place nationwide in which the mayor is empowered to authorize charter schools. (“Indianapolis Mayor, Supporter of Charters, Loses Race,” Nov. 14, 2007.)

Even if lawmakers don’t make such a move, they might allow the mayor to chair a board of chartering trustees.

“In either case, we need to ask the permission of the General Assembly,” Mr. Magee said.

Not that the region has a choice, as the mayor sees it. Because of statewide fiscal problems, Cumberland, which has about 5,000 public school students, has seen about a 15-percentage-point decline in the proportion of local education expenses paid for by the state over the last decade.

“In our budget, that’s about $6 million,” Mayor McKee noted. “That means, either we tax more or we reduce the expenditures and the quality of education goes down, which is a Catch-22.”

Unique Effort

The mayor, who took office in January, found neither alternative palatable, and began meeting with other local leaders in what became a coalition to try to pool education resources, as well as health-care and other big-ticket municipal costs.

The plan would be unique nationally, according to Bryan C. Hassel, a co-director of Chapel Hill, N.C.-based Public Impact, a national education policy and management-consulting firm that has helped dozens of organizations set up and manage charter schools.

Mr. Hassel, whom the coalition hired to help structure the regional charter school plan, estimated that consolidating school governance and flattening the large inequities resulting from Rhode Island’s quirky per-pupil funding formula would make “percentage savings in double digits well within reach.” Rhode Island, which, despite being the nation’s smallest state and having only about 1 million residents, has 39 stand-alone school districts.

But everything is contingent on the less-rigid operating rules of charter schools—what Mr. Hassel refers to as “the flexibility to allocate staff and resources.”

While Cumberland Teachers Association President Rod McGarry said he applauds any effort to improve schools, he noted that the mayor had not shared his idea with the National Education Association-affiliated union, nor solicited its input on the plan.

“The approach that he’s taking, in my opinion, would tend to alienate the people we already have in the trenches doing their jobs,” said Mr. McGarry, a Cumberland High School teacher. “I would have preferred he take the approach to talk to the people who best understand the needs of the children.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 19, 2007 edition of Education Week as Rhode Island Coalition Aims to Start Network Of Regional Charters School, Team Names Remain Thorny I

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