Response mixed to charter school legislation

Response mixed to charter school legislation

Bills granting local control on BVP enrollment draw praise, sharp criticism

CUMBERLAND – Few communities are impacted more than Cumberland when it comes to paying for students to go to charter schools, say the authors of bills aimed at limiting the impact of those schools on the local school district.

Corresponding bills from state Sen. Ryan Pearson and Rep. Mia Ackerman would allow the Cumberland Town Council to limit the growth of charter schools.

Ackerman and Pearson make no secret that the bills, filed at the request of the Town Council and School Committee, are aimed directly at the school having the biggest financial impact on Cumberland, the Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy.

Mayor Bill Murray, meanwhile, opposes the legislation.

For this year, Cumberland is spending $3.9 million on charter school tuitions, up sharply from $125,000 in 2008. Of that number, $3.4 million is going to pay tuitions for 448 students at Blackstone Valley Prep schools.

Pearson told The Breeze the measures have strong support locally.

“It’s rare for so many elected (officials) to be on board,” he said.

The bill, said Pearson, would help bring Cumberland “back to a normal level of (school) choice.” In Cumberland, some 11 percent of students attend charter schools, about double the standard in Massachusetts, he said. The bills would allow officials to say the school can’t enroll new students unless it gets under a certain percentage again.

Pearson said he would ideally prefer his other bill to have the state contribute more money to districts with high charter tuitions, but said state budget constraints will prevent that bill from passing this year.

Jeremy Chiappetta, executive director of Blackstone Valley Prep, said while he supports Pearson’s funding bill, providing “real fiscal relief to Cumberland,” he’s “deeply concerned” about the legal implications of the more controversial bill giving the Town Council authority “to set our enrollment to a level as low as zero.”

BVP has an approved charter from the Rhode Island Board of Education, said Chiappetta. Since 2010, the school has been authorized and planned to grow to nearly 2,400 seats, with about 600 of those set aside for Cumberland families.

Based on its contract with the state, BVP has entered into multiple decisions and contractual agreements, as well as enrollment offers to families, said Chiappetta.

“Senate Bill 892 effectively allows the Cumberland Town Council to unilaterally amend our charter, an authority explicitly granted to the Board of Education,” he said.

Chiappetta has noted that the addition of BVP to the local school scene has helped motivate improvement at Cumberland’s district schools.

Bill Dennen, vice chairman of the Cumberland School Committee, testified before the House Health Education and Wellness Committee that Cumberland schools continue to suffer from one of the lowest funding in the state. He said the district has been supporting “two school districts” since 2009, creating “somewhat of a perfect storm.”

“The expanded charter network has created a divide within our town, as neighbors fight over limited resources,” he said on June 7.

New Blackstone Valley Prep schools continue to open in Cumberland, said Dennen, a few miles up the road from district schools that are being forced to make cuts. The resolutions from the council and school board ask the General Assembly to allow local officials to decide how their education money is spent, said Dennen.

BVP, which draws student from Pawtucket, Central Falls, Cumberland and Lincoln, was started by former Cumberland Mayor Dan McKee. Mayors lead the board of directors for the charter schools, which receive tuition from Cumberland for each local student who goes there.

Mayor Murray told The Breeze there is no question the Cumberland School District is at a disadvantage, but the bills from Ackerman and Pearson “would unnecessarily inject politics into a family’s ability to have school of choice.”

“Today, the cap is set by RIDE, and the number considers the factors and impacts of all parties involved,” he said. “I see no good reason to change the independence of the process.”

Handing power to local officials will “effectively grant them veto of the independent process” and “school choice for all families will be dead,” said Murray, who drew praise from Cumberland officials this year for his efforts to significantly boost funding to public schools.

The better option, said Murray, is to support Pearson’s bill to have the state pay for more of the local share for BVP students. Better still, he said, the state must address the school funding formula next year and create a sustainable system going forward.

Pearson’s Senate bill, now being studied, would also allow the council to limit enrollments at the William M. Davis Jr. Career and Technical High School in Lincoln and the Met School in Providence.

David Chenevert, executive director of the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association and former longtime Cumberland Town Council member, said he understands Pearson’s intent with the bill, but said he doesn’t support it. In an email, he called it “poor legislation that may solve a financial burden but hurts the students.”

The legislation undermines the efforts toward developing a workforce in the only state vocational school, said Chenevert. The state has $3.65 million in the budget to develop advanced manufacturing at Davies, but the bill limits the number of children able to go. If other communities do the same thing, it would hurt the development of a new manufacturing workforce.

Pearson said the legislation is more about the “massive bill” at BVP than the few students going to Davies, and he doesn’t see local officials doing much to limit growth at Davies given the small number of Cumberland students who attend.

Comments

Rather than trying to limit the funding to our charter & vocational schools, Cumberland would be better served if our legislators and their colleagues lobbied for a better funding formula for our schools. Davies provides programs not offered within the Cumberland school system. BVP and our other charter schools have provided a learning environment which has enabled many children an opportunity to succeed well beyond the expectations of parents and educators. We must continue to support these schools and stop treating them like bastard stepchildren of Cumberland's school system. Hopefully our elected officials can look past political and legislative alliances and support all of our schools.

as we have teachers unions that will never happen. Union leadership likes to say it's "for the children" but that is laughable.