Charter-school hullabaloo

First came the recruitment of State Superintendent Deborah Gist; next came winning $75 million in Race to the Top (RTTT) funds. Rhode Island has been on a whirlwind track toward education reform over the past couple years. And?as one with boatloads of Ocean State pride (who doesn't love coffee milk, water fire, and Dels lemonade?)?it's been fun to watch.

Of course, no reform effort is without its drama. Parents erupted when Central Falls Superintendent Frances Gallo announced a turnaround effort at the city's high school. Currently, organized pushback is being targeted against the expansion of Achievement First (AF) into Rhodey.

AF is a proven high-quality charter-school network, currently operating nineteen charters in New York and Connecticut. In 2007, one of its campuses was highlighted by the US DOE as a model for closing the achievement gap; it was one of seven such schools in the country. In 2009, fourth graders at AF's two oldest campuses (both in New York) demonstrated 93 percent proficiency in English language arts and 99 percent proficiency in math.

Since Rhode Island submitted its RTTT application, there have been tentative plans to expand AF the Ocean State. These plans?and the vocal opposition of them?recently solidified, as Cranston Mayor Alan Fung invited Achievement First to his district.

Why the backlash? Former Fordham colleague (now with the New Jersey Department of Education), Andy Smarick called it in March 2010 when discussing the Central Falls out:

We all know about the plans to fire and replace teachers at the struggling Central Falls in Rhode Island. But it turns out this event is part of a bigger and more interesting story.

First, the district is increasingly going charter. There are already five charters serving city kids; next year more than 10 percent of students will be in charters and that may double in the next few years...

Many have explained the Central Falls shake-up as a result of the Obama administration's focus on meaningful interventions for failing schools and/or the state's desire to show gumption leading up to the Race to the Top competition. But perhaps this new schools push is also relevant. Not only do new entrants provide a bit of competition; more importantly, high-performing new schools show what's possible, raising the expectations of everyone involved. In other words, meek interventions for failing schools become untenable options.

The backlash against Achievement First, the mayoral academies it will set up (not the first of their kind in Rhode Island), and the charter sector in general could have far-reaching implications. Not only would a blockade against AF mean that hundreds of needy students in Cranston and Providence (which may also enroll students in AF's new mayoral academies) will be denied access to these quality schools and caring learning environments, but it could also send powerful signals to would-be Rhode Island reformers that the fortress of education's status quo cannot be overtaken.

Last night marked the final public hearing on AF's first charter-school application. Here's hoping that the Board of Regents allows for a bit of competition?and allows Achievement First to show what's possible, raising the expectations of everyone involved.

?Daniela Fairchild

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