We in Rhode Island have been very lucky to have since 2009 a courageous and results-oriented Commissioner of Education, Deborah Gist. I am very grateful to her, not only for having the courage to initiate necessary and difficult conversations but also for being the catalyst for significant reform and improved student outcomes. She is a true champion for kids and her lens is always, “What is best for our students. Period.”
The National Association of of Charter School Authorizers just released a report entitled On The Road to Better Accountability: An Analysis of State Charter School Policies. After reading the two pages dedicated to Rhode Island, I’m keenly aware that we as a state must do better. Out of a possible score of 30 points, we received only 4 and our rank within our group of 21 states is 20.
We Can’t Depend on Luck
For the moment, it’s easy to think we are doing fine. However, that is solely because Commissioner Gist supports authorizing, reauthorizing and expanding charter schools that can demonstrably show they are working for kids in measurable ways. She is not a rubber stamp nor is she an opponent to school choice. She looks at each case individually to ensure that the original promise of the charter movement is upheld and makes recommendations to the Board of Education accordingly.
What is that promise? The promise is that the schools will perform equally or better than their traditional district counterparts.
The problem highlighted by the report lies in the weakness of Rhode Island’s laws around charter school authorization. Despite our current good fortune in having Commissioner Gist at the helm, the laws aren’t adequate to protect charter schools from a commissioner or State Board of Education that decides to sabotage the movement or remove impartial accountability from the process. As it remains unclear whether our governor elect, Gina Raimondo, will even keep Commissioner Gist on her team, the need for stronger laws on this has become an issue of some urgency.
The report is really a call to action for our legislature. Though in practice, our authorization process currently is thorough, transparent and merit-based, there are no legislative guarantees that it will stay that way. On the contrary, the laws leave open the possibility for abuse without any mechanism to appeal.
Just yesterday, Commissioner Gist tweeted out the news that our state’s Department of Education is now accepting proposals for charter schools opening in 2016.
Exciting news from RIDE; we’re now accepting proposals for charter schools hoping to open in Fall 2016! http://t.co/ThDjIJXzq7
— Deborah A. Gist (@deborahgist) December 4, 2014
As a mom with three sons in a charter school, it is my hope that our elected representatives will honor the tireless work and in some cases, unprecedented success of Rhode Island’s charter schools, and pass laws that protect the process that is just about to begin for fall 2016. To fail to do so is to fail the thousands of children currently in charters, the more than 5,000 on waiting lists, the dedicated educators who work in them, and the parents who want a choice about where their child goes to school.
So, to the Rhode Island General Assembly I say the following: Let’s get this done.