InvestiGATE: The Relationship between Public and Charter Schools

There are 299 primary and secondary schools in Rhode Island, a combination of traditional public schools, charter schools, state-operated schools and a handful of other institutions listed on the state’s reporting. This excludes private schools and other types of alternative educational institutions.

According to the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), there are 30 charter schools, which fall under three different subtypes of schools. There are district charter schools, which are “created by existing public schools, groups of public school personnel, public school districts or a group of school districts.” There are mayoral academies, which are created by a mayor of any city or town, acting by or through a nonprofit, “regardless of the time said nonprofit organization is in existence.”

Independent charter schools, as most of the state’s charters are classified, are created by either RI nonprofit organizations or colleges or universities in the state. If a nonprofit organization is to start a charter, the organization must exist for a “substantial reason other than to operate a school.”

Keith Oliveira, the executive director of the Rhode Island League of Charter Schools, told Motif that there has always been criticism of charter schools. This criticism is rooted in the charge that charter schools take funding away from public school districts.

Keith Oliveira

Keith Oliveira

Charter schools, while sanctioned by the state government, which provides the school with its “charter” to exist, operate autonomously from the traditional policies of a public school system. This is ostensibly to allow them increased freedom in adjusting curricula to its student body’s needs.

Oliveira explained that a charter school is able to design curricula based on student data on skill levels and to make adjustments, such as hiring more specialists, to meet student educational needs. These schools use data to “have a better idea of who [the schools’] kids are.”

Oliveira also noted that while they operate autonomously, these schools are beholden to state and national standards like Common Core.

The money that flows into charter schools and away from public schools is attached to its individual students, Oliveira said. “I would argue that money is entitled to the student,” he said.

The entitlement to that money was never the district’s, but rather is attached to the student’s right to a “free and appropriate public education,” which he said a charter school can provide.

However, the criticism that these schools take money away from public schools is one that Lawrence Purtill, the president of the National Education Association of Rhode Island, says holds water.

The money does indeed follow the student, he confirmed. “On the surface, that makes sense,” Purtill said.

However, when students move out of a public school district into a charter school, he said, they take their per-pupil funding with them. If a student is arbitrarily valued at $10,000, which would hypothetically cover the cost of educating that student, that is the amount that flows from the traditional public school to the charter school when the student leaves.

If 100 students leave a traditional public school for a charter school in this example, Mr. Purtill said, that is worth $1 million. However, the public school is not going to save $1 million when these students leave, as the overhead costs of educating the students that remain, and the cost of operating the school, do not equate to a one-to-one ratio.

The overall cost of education is not tied directly to the per-student cost of education, and therefore when a student leaves, the proportionate loss of funding that results in can negatively impact a public school and the remaining students, he said.

“Schools are going to have to make decisions about cutting programs and I don’t think that helps anybody,” he said. “It’s not the fantasy that some people think it is.”

Additionally, charter schools often have what Purtill called “deep pockets,” which can result in more funding for these schools to operate. He stated that from a practical point of view, the question is fundamentally about extending the same opportunities to all students.

“I’d like to see the money going to help all students, not just some,” he said. Purtill stated that he is not opposed to the idea of charters overall, however, and expressed support for their “original purpose.” His criticism is based mainly on the idea of charter schools that act essentially as “parallel schools,” which do most of what traditional public schools are already doing, he said.

Each year, the state publishes “report cards” for each school. These report cards include several pieces of information about the school’s graduation rate, attendance rate and other data points. It also reports percent proficiencies for reading and math at each school.

The percent proficiency rates are based on Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a standardized test administered in RI schools. The figures represent the percentage of students who are performing at or above the goal level for their grade. Beginning this year, Rhode Island will begin reporting from the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS) for third through eighth grades, and using the PSATs and SATs for high school, according to Megan Geoghegan, communications officer at RIDE.

Based on data collected from these report cards from the ’16 – ’17 school year, charter schools and public schools perform at roughly the same percentage rates in both math and reading on average. Public schools have a five percentage point edge over independent charter schools in math.

When considering this data, it is important to note that traditional public schools outnumber charter schools by a 9 to 1 ratio.

For example, the Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy, a charter school located in Pawtucket, reports that its reading percent proficiency for its student body is 67.5. Its math proficiency is 50%.

Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy is a high school, and has been operating since 2014. It draws students from Cumberland, Central Falls, Lincoln and Pawtucket.

The percent proficiencies reported in these districts’ public high schools range dramatically, with Blackstone Valley Prep reporting about 10% higher than the top-performing public school in these districts, Lincoln Senior High School, which reported reading at 48.9% and math at 44.5%.

Because of the large number of schools in Rhode Island, this data, like all data, can be misleading. It is important to try to compare these schools’ performances in context, with attention paid to progress made within a school or district, a school’s student experience and external factors that may influence student performance.

Purtill noted that students see educational advantage when there are certain external factors that have correlation to higher performances, such as parental involvement. Not all families can provide the same level of involvement or extra-curricular learning, which can impact the data point that represents that student.

Additionally, students whose families live below the poverty line often experience educational disadvantages that impact their overall student experience. Systems, funding and programs have to exist to help these students, Purtill said.

To this point, the data reflects educational differences, not just between charter and traditional public schools, but dramatic differences exist from district to district within the traditional public school arrangement.

A traditionally more affluent area, such as North Kingstown, seems to perform at higher rates than an area with more people living at or below the poverty line, like Providence. Because schools are funded through a variety of different state and local sources, the relative wealth of a school can impact a student’s experience because of the school’s ability to hire teachers, buy updated textbooks and provide students with other educational opportunities.

This is Purtill’s point when he addresses the fact that a student in a charter school’s monetary value can go further at a smaller school, which has less students to educate and, potentially, a deeper well from which to draw financially.

However, Oliveira states that charter schools can provide students with innovative educational methods or more specialized attention.

“Our obligation as a society [is] to be investing in the education of our kids,” he said. Charter schools can do that, Oliveira argues.

Purtill counters this, saying that the problem with parallel schools is that they draw students away from traditional public schools while also providing much of the same resources that a public school might. “We’re not opposed to the concept of charter schools,” he said, noting their value if they are able to try different methods to reach students who may need particular help.

At the center of both arguments, however, remain the students. The student experience is shaped by a variety of factors, some external to the school itself, and many which cannot be plotted with data. Determining the worth of a particular style of education is a larger equation than can be hashed out with graphs; the weight of each student weighs more heavily than any dataset could.

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