- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 29, 2016

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - In a story March 27 about school choice in Rhode Island, The Associated Press erroneously reported the title of Barry Ricci. He is the superintendent of the Chariho Regional School District, not its president.

A corrected version of the story is below:

Rhode Island governor to introduce school choice initiative

Gov. Gina Raimondo is taking a page from neighboring Massachusetts as she prepares to introduce a school choice initiative letting parents send their kids to schools in another town or city

By MATT O’BRIEN

Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Gov. Gina Raimondo is taking a page from neighboring Massachusetts as she prepares to introduce a new school choice initiative to allow parents to send their children to public schools in another town or city.

The Democrat’s plan is part of a broader education agenda that has sought to balance the perspectives of two competing groups: reformists who favor charter school expansion and other parental choices, and traditional school districts already hurt by declining enrollment.

Education Commissioner Ken Wagner plans to detail the plan Wednesday in an address to the Rhode Island General Assembly. Raimondo has already made clear that it will be based on the model Massachusetts adopted in 1992.

The neighboring state’s well-regarded public school system has long been the envy of Rhode Island leaders. Raimondo has argued that the two states performed similarly decades ago before Massachusetts rocketed ahead for a number of reasons, including high standards, accountability and giving parents more choices.

Her school choice policy would, like Massachusetts, let each district decide if it wants to accept students from neighboring cities or towns.

“It really works best for kids who want to move for a particular reason,” Raimondo said recently. “Maybe that town has a really amazing English language learner program or amazing robotics program. It tends to be not a very high percentage of people that leave.”

Only about 1 percent of Massachusetts students attend a school district outside of where they live, according to spokeswoman Jacqueline Reis of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, though she said the policy has a “big impact” in certain districts.

“Some people do it because they’re concerned about the quality of the school where they live,” Reis said.

Though described as modest, Rhode Island’s proposal could also feed into a growing disenchantment among state lawmakers with policies that have drained traditional school districts of students and the money attached to them.

The state House of Representatives voted 60-11 in January to curb the growth of charter schools by giving towns and cities more of a say over whether a new school can open or expand. The Senate has yet to vote on the legislation. Both chambers are controlled by Democrats sympathetic to municipal and school officials who have complained about the loss of money whenever a charter school draws away a student.

“I’m in favor of charters that serve a niche,” such as those focused on specific trades or students who are difficult to teach, said Democratic Rep. Gregg Amore, who represents East Providence and teaches history at the city’s high school. “But when we have a parallel system, I’m not sure we can afford it.”

Raimondo said she tried to address those concerns when she introduced an education spending plan in February that reduces the amount of money lost by a sending district when a student attends a charter.

“Right now, the way the funding formula works, it basically pits charter schools against district schools,” she said. “When a kid leaves a district school and goes to a charter school, all the money goes with them even though some of the costs are left behind.”

Lawmakers will be debating her education budget proposals in the coming weeks.

The demand for school choice was illustrated last week when a news outlet, The Hummel Report, filmed a town councilwoman in Johnston driving her children more than 30 miles to a higher-ranked high school in Narragansett, where she owns a beach cottage.

Some school leaders have questioned why Raimondo is making school choice a priority when so much is needed to bolster the state’s traditional school districts.

Barry Ricci, superintendent of the three-town Chariho Regional School District, said that Raimondo has brought a lot of energy to the state’s education conversation but he’d rather see resources spent on recruiting top-notch math and science teachers.

“If choice is the strategy to fix what ails public education, the results have been mixed, at best,” he said.

When Massachusetts adopted school choice, “they increased state aid significantly when they did their reform,” Ricci said. “That’s not happening in Rhode Island.”

Amore said another lesson to take from Massachusetts is its spending on early childhood education.

“Until we invest in that, this is all window dressing,” Amore said.

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