opinion Newport Rhode Island

By Sandra Cano and Ana B. Quezada

Providing access to a quality public education is a primary responsibility of policymakers and elected officials. All children are entitled to a quality education no matter their race, socioeconomic status, or zip code.

The moratorium on charter school expansion recently approved by the Rhode Island Senate is neither anti-education nor anti-charter school. Rather, it is about saving traditional public schools, thereby ensuring every child in our state has a fighting chance at a quality education before it’s too late.

Recently, the Board of Education granted preliminary approval of 5,835 more charter school seats. Any increase to the number of seats at charter schools inherently draws financial resources from traditional public schools, and the estimated fiscal impact of this expansion exceeds $90 million. The new and expanded charter schools would be funded through $25.4 million charged to the sending districts directly. Those sending districts would also forego state aid of approximately $66.9 million, which would instead be directed to the new charter schools. That is on top of the increased demand for resources from school district struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

These districts, which range from Pawtucket to Providence to Woonsocket to Warwick, simply cannot afford it. We’ve already seen what losing these precious dollars could mean: cuts to career and tech education, ELL programming, services for students with special needs, or even sports and music. The moratorium recently approved by the Senate isn’t about teachers or unions, it’s about giving the General Assembly and policy makers the necessary time to review the current funding structure for public education before it’s too late.

While we appreciate the opportunities created for some children by charter schools, the fact remains that these opportunities do not exist for every child in Rhode Island. In part, charter schools were created to raise the bar for all public schools by developing innovative practices that could be replicated in a traditional public school setting. Instead, they have been an anchor around the neck of public education. Two parallel education systems in Rhode Island now exist: the charter schools flush with public cash and traditional schools starved of resources.

It is imperative, for the sake of all schoolchildren, that we pause and reexamine our funding formula. In 2019, the General Assembly passed sweeping education reforms modeled on successes in Massachusetts that will raise curriculum standards and increase accountability. In 2018, voters approved an historic $250 million investment in public school facilities to create first-rate classrooms and institutions of learning. As these investments and reforms take hold, now is not the time to starve school districts of precious resources for instruction and programming.

Let’s be clear, we are not “anti-charter school.” The General Assembly has permitted considerable charter school expansion over the last decade. We are now asking for respite and a three year pause to ensure the expansion of charter schools does not come at the expense of every other child left behind in a public school classroom.

As the appropriating authority, we have a responsibility to look holistically at the entire education structure. Moreover, we have a moral obligation to ensure that every student, in every school district, has the opportunity to receive a quality education.

Sen. Sandra Cano (D – Dist. 8, Pawtucket) is Chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee and Sen. Ana B. Quezada is Deputy Senate Majority Whip.