On October 22nd, Governor Raimondo signed an executive order creating a 29 member Working Group to study the Rhode Island’s school funding formula and offer a report by January 1st. That’s a big group, a tight deadline, and a complex issue.

The Governor has asked the Working Group to explore several themes:

  • Fairness across school types: The funding formula must be fair and supported by data.
  • Flexibility and sufficiency: The funding formula must enable prudent and sustainable flexibility at the district, school, and student levels.
  • Responsiveness to unique needs: Our families, communities, and schools have unique needs, and the funding formula needs to account for and accommodate these unique needs.
  • Fiscal responsibility: The funding formula needs to direct resources to the areas in which they are needed most and the funding formula must encourage savings and efficiency whenever possible.
  • Improved Outcomes: The funding formula needs to invest these resources wisely to ensure improved outcomes.

I would propose that a key facet of the Working Group’s research should be a set of fairly straightforward projections, some spreadsheets, that project the impact of charter school growth on certain cities and towns, such as Providence, Lincoln and Woonsocket over the next 10 to 15 years. They should consider several scenarios, including the growth of existing charter schools to their currently projected capacity, if if all new charters are all allowed to expand to be full K-12 schools (likely under current policies), and if, in addition, new charter schools are added at the same rate as in recent years. This basic analysis should be foundational to creating a “prudent and sustainable” system.

Based on my preliminary analysis, Providence and other RI municipalities are going to face a whole new wave of structural deficits brought on by charter growth which will demand ever more neighborhood school closings and program cuts. The pain will not be limited to the schools, as the education budget represents the largest chunk of each municipal budget. Eventually conservative enthusiasm for charter schools will bump against conservative reluctance to raise taxes.

Even if a moratorium was immediately placed on granting new charters, Rhode Island has several recently approved charter schools which will continue to add grade levels and students for five years or more. A significant amount of charter school growth is effectively locked into the system. Even a charter “freeze” would not stop the growth of the charter sector, let alone close any charter schools.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello recently told the Providence Journal that charter schools are creating “a competitive parallel system that’s taking money out of the traditional public school,” and “You’re hurting the majority of kids in our society by providing an elite education to the few. We can’t afford two systems.”

There are many ways to improve Rhode Island’s funding formula. All of them involve spending more money or shifting money into poorer communities, neither or which seem to have broad political support. The problem facing charter school advocates is that our current path offers only hard choices, and the easiest practical alternative will ultimately be too slow and eventually halt the growth of charter schools. We can no longer treat charter school expansion as the one part of our state and local budgets that cannot be questioned, limited or touched. Whether or not that reckoning will happen in next year’s legislative sessions is something to keep a close eye on.