PROVIDENCE – Kristin Grady said the Cumberland school where her son, Alex, had been going is one of the best in the area, but she nonetheless decided to send him to Blackstone Valley Prep to get him “more involvement from his teachers and a sense of belonging that was missing from his former school.”
The problem, she said, is the former Our Lady of Fatima school building in Valley Falls where the state’s first Mayoral Academy is located is only big enough for one grade, the one Alex is in now.
Plans are for the school to expand into another building next year, Grady said, and “we have few options before us for where we are going to go.” And that, she told the House Finance Committee, “is only a stop-gap measure for one more school year.”
Like all other charter schools, Blackstone Valley Prep gets only a 30 percent reimbursement for construction and renovation of facilities – called “housing costs” in education bureaucratese – while some school districts, such as Pawtucket, which sends some of its students to Blackstone Valley Prep, get reimbursement of up to 80 percent of housing costs.
Scores of students, teachers, parents, administrators and friends of charter schools showed up at the General Assembly Thursday, filling the gallery of the House of Representatives as a solid block of purple T-shirted humanity, to urge lawmakers to have the state pay a larger percentage of the charter schools’ housing costs.
In his 2012 budget, Gov. Lincoln Chafee proposes increasing the charter school housing aid, setting the reimbursement rate at the average share of the districts that send students to a particular school, based on a complex formula that takes into account the percentage of students various districts send to a particular charter schools and the reimbursement rate those districts receive from the state.
In recent years, hearings on budget articles relating to education featured mayors, superintendents and school committee members showing up en masse to plead for a bigger allocation of state aid to their community or school district. But with last year’s passage of a school funding formula, the first year of which is pegged for full funding under Chafee’s budget proposal, put an end to those separate pleadings.
Chafee’s plan was applauded not only by the charter school supporters, but by Education Commissioner Deborah Gist as well.
“We believe this will provide equitable distribution of construction funds, it will treat charter public schools the way school districts are treated in terms of construction funds and the reimbursement rate will depend on the poverty rate of the sending community as is the case with the aid that is provided to the school district,” Gist testified to the finance panel.
Steven Nardelli, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Charter Schools, called the current disparity in reimbursement rates “inequitable and unfair.”
Nardelli said there are currently 15 public charter schools in Rhode Island, educating 3,900 students from 34 communities – 2,800 of those students are considered “at risk.
“Our charter public schools provide Rhode Island families with their only public school choice option,” he said. “Charter schools are public. They are open to the public, they are funded by the public and are accountable to the public.
The governor’s proposal to change the reimbursement formula would “level the playing field” for charter schools, Nardelli said. “The current inequity in the availability of housing aid reimbursement places charter public schools at a disadvantage in acquiring adequate facilities.”
Maryellen Butke, executive director of RI-CAN (Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now), an education reform advocacy group, called the increased reimbursement for charter schools “much fairer” than the current rate.
In Rhode Island, Butke said, housing costs incurred by all public schools averaged 9.7 percent of all spending between 2005 and 2009, approximately $1,300 a student. Charter schools on the other hand, spent nearly 15 percent, or about $2,200 per student, on building costs.
“Every penny of every pupil dollar a charter school has to spend on daily building costs…impacts a charter school’s ability to optimally serve its students,” Butke said, noting that charter schools spend $875 per student more than traditional schools each year.
The charter school housing aid proposal is one article in the proposed 2012 budget, which will be voted on later this year.