In his 2016 state of education address, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner proposed the creation of "empowerment schools," which would grant exceptions from various regulations and possibly clauses of collectively bargained contracts, and also allow the schools to accept students from outside their district.

This is typical of Raimondo's education strategy -- low-cost, high-profile, nibbling around the edges reforms. In Massachusetts a similar program has about 1.5% of students attending schools outside their district. For good or ill, not many students and teachers are likely to be impacted.

There is one particular opportunity for abuse that has come up in other states trying similar things which Rhode Island needs to be aware of while considering this policy -- cross-district online "virtual" schools.

In general, schools don't have much motivation to bring in outside students, for a number of reasons including:

  • Districts don't really make a "profit" from adding students in a traditional school, except in specific cases, such as adding students to an under-enrolled building.

  • Making accurate predictions about future enrollment is difficult.

  • Transportation is a hassle, even if parents take responsibility for it.

  • Bringing in a different population of students always presents a degree of risk, political or otherwise.

However, if the "empowerment" program is completely or partially online, "blended" in the current terminology, all these issues are significantly reduced. Most importantly, running predominantly online programs can be profitable for a district. They can be run for much less than the state and local money that would "follow" a student from another district. Online programs can scale up or down relatively easily; transportation requirements are significantly reduced; and social friction from mixing in outside students is much less of an issue.

Exempting empowerment schools from various regulations or contractual requirements would also make it easier to implement an online program. Adding more blended learning and online is a priority in RIDE's current strategic plan.

The track record of purely virtual programs is very poor. Blended learning might mitigate the downsides and retain the benefits, but it is too soon to say anything definitively.

The bottom line is that if a district could create a virtual school where they could serve, say, 1000 out-of-district students at a low enough cost that their "profit" was $5,000 per student, they'd have an extra $5 million dollars a year to spend on in-town students, higher salaries or conferences in the Bahamas.

If the system is set up a way that it is possible, someone will eventually try it.