This has been a difficult week, both in our community (in which a group of Nazi sympathizers tried to intimidate a meeting) and globally (with Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine). In this context, the work of the Rhode Island Senate pales in significance; however, I will use this week’s letter to discuss several legislative projects I am pursuing in the area of education. I will be discussing bills I have sponsored or co-sponsored, some of which have been formally introduced onto the Senate’s docket, while others are still in the drafting stage. To understand the steps an introduced bill must complete in order to become law, please review this diagram from the Secretary of State. As it explains, a bill is just a proposal; most bills do not make it through the entire legislative process in a given year; and many bills that gain passage require more than one year to do so. As a result, introducing a bill is just the beginning, and I will be working with my colleagues to gain as much support as I can for these projects.
During the campaign, I explained the value of allowing the voters to decide in a referendum whether to enshrine a right to education in our State’s Constitution. Last year, the Senate approved such a resolution, but it did not pass the Rhode Island House or gain the Governor’s signature. This year, Senator Picard has re-introduced that resolution as Bill No. S-2095, and I was grateful for the opportunity to co-sponsor.
Another issue that arose during the campaign was the growth of charter schools in Providence and their impact on the Providence Public Schools. Under the “money follows the child” feature of the current funding formula, the City loses not only the associated average State aid (currently around $11,000) but also the corresponding local contribution (approximately $5,000) for each Providence student who enrolls in a charter school rather than in the Providence Public Schools. This feature harms the Providence Public Schools financially, as the loss of a single child results in only a marginal savings, which is lower than the average cost per child, stretching the budget more thinly. This problem is compounded as charter enrollments increase, leading to this year’s reduction of $18.9 million in State aid, which the Governor’s budget proposes restoring on a one-time basis. The growth of charter schools also affects the composition of the Providence Public Schools student body. The current program allows families to “opt in” to the charter school lottery, creating what economists call adverse selection, through which better informed and more motivated families (who often provide their children with greater support in school) are more likely to apply for charter school seats.
To counteract this disparity, the Rhode Island House of Representatives last year passed a bill introduced by Representative Ajello to change the Providence charter school lottery from “opt in” to “opt out.” The bill did not become law, however, as it neither passed the Senate nor was signed by the Governor. This year, she is re-introducing that bill, and I have introduced a parallel bill, S-2177 on the Senate side. I also have introduced a second bill (which is drafted but not yet filed) with a slightly different form of charter school “opt out” lottery in which the schools have “weighted admissions” to favor students from certain disadvantaged groups. This bill is based on ideas from Senator Cano, the Chair of the Education Committee. Finally, I have co-sponsored a bill introduced (but not yet filed) by Senator Pearson, which would, following the example of Massachusetts, limit the fiscal impact of charter school enrollment on any school district by setting a cap of 22% of the budget in low-performing school districts and 9% elsewhere. Each and all of these three bills are designed, in different ways, to prevent the growth of charter schools from hollowing out the Providence Public Schools to the point where it enters a “death spiral.”
There is one other education bill I am working on that is still in its early stages, but I hope to report on it further (along with bills I am introducing on other subjects) in the coming weeks.