Aaron Regunberg: Do Mayoral Academies Have Something to Hide?

Friday, March 23, 2012


On Wednesday, advocates of “mayoral academies”—charter schools that operate under a series of specially granted exceptions—came out against SB 2709, or the “Mayoral Academy Accountability and Equity Act” as I’ve heard some refer to it, a bill at the State House amending the language of Rhode Island’s Mayoral Academies legislation.

Their main point of opposition was against a clause that would allow sending school districts to “retain twenty-five percent of the revenue [for each mayoral academy] for administration and operation costs that are higher than those of its mayoral academy counterpart.”

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The idea behind this is to remedy the problem that larger districts have larger administration and operating costs, meaning that when you’re dealing with a major system like Providence, losing one student to a mayoral academy drains one per-pupil funding allotment out of the district without making the district proportionately cheaper to run.

My guess is that this clause was included as a means of ensuring that the Achievement First schools that will be opening in Providence in a little over a year won’t remove so much money from the district that Providence Public Schools will be forced to make more cuts and close more school communities in the near future, as the School Department’s own audit of Achievement First’s proposal predicted they might have to.

Increasing Accountability

Because I truly believe Providence’s schools cannot afford even greater underfunding than they currently face, this change seems like good policy to me. Having said that, however, I can understand the opposition to this clause felt by members of the Blackstone Valley Prep community (the only current mayoral academy in RI). Obviously they don’t want to have funding taken from their school, in the same way that folks in Providence are worried about losing funding because of Achievement First.

But SB 2709 includes a number of other revisions to the mayoral academy law designed to increase these schools’ accountability. While I can see, again, where opposition to the funding change comes from, these other components strike me as common-sense reforms that even advocates of mayoral academies should find uncontroversial.

The full Mayoral Academy Accountability and Equity Act consists of three additional alterations to the original mayoral academies legislation. The first adds to the definition of a mayoral academy a line requiring each school to enroll students who “represent to the maximum extant possible” the student demographics of sending districts, including “race, ethnicity, eligibility for the federal free and reduced lunch program, limited English proficient students, and special education classifications.”

That seems pretty fair—if these schools are going to be taking money out of our school systems and are going to be comparing their students’ test results to the test results of students in our school systems, it seems pretty rational that they should be serving similar student populations. And considering how consistently these kinds of schools are accused of “creaming,” and how hard their lobbyists push back against that charge, I’d expect that—if they really have nothing to hide on that front—mayoral academies advocates would support this clause.

Common Sense Regulation

The second change is the addition of an evaluation system for the above requirement. SB 2709 says: “All mayoral academies shall report annually to the department of elementary and secondary education, senate president and speaker of the house regarding the number of students in each grade, demographics of that student and number of students who left the charter school during the school year by withdrawal, expulsion, other disciplinary action or any other circumstance and the placement of the student thereafter in each grade that the academies offer.”

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Again, this seems like a common-sense regulation to me—if we’re going to expect these schools to serve a representative student population, then we should keep tabs on whether they’re actually doing that, particularly in light of the widespread charges that these kinds of schools use high attrition rates to get around nominally anti-creaming lottery systems (for example, Achievement Firstlost over half the members of their last two graduating high school classes between the 9th and 12th grades). The kinds of “ed reformers” who are at the forefront of supporting mayoral academies are also the folks talking the most about “accountability” in education, so I’d hope they’d be willing to extend that focus to their own initiatives.

Finally, SB 2709 requires mayoral academies to follow Rhode Island law regarding teachers’ retirement. Now, I understand that there are some people out there who don’t think any workers deserve to have reasonable retirement benefits, but I think most of us believe that professional teachers, after a career serving our state’s children, are entitled to grow old with dignity, and I think holding mayoral academies up to this standard (the same standard followed by every schooldistrict in Rhode Island, including each of its other charters) seems eminently fair.

Why Oppose Bill?

SB 2709, then, consists of four distinct revisions. The first, regarding funding, is designed to take into account the fact that mayoral academies’ sending districts face greater administrative and operational costs and so shouldn’t be disproportionately harmed by the loss of funding entailed by mayoral academies. I believe this is a critical step in ensuring that initiatives like the Achievement First proposal do not drain an already underfunded district and punish all Providence students by leading to increased cuts and school closings. But I understand why folks like those at Blackstone Valley Prep would oppose such a revision.

What doesn’t seem so explainable to me is why they would oppose the other common-sense reforms designed to keep mayoral academies accountable to the communities they are supposed to serve. My question for the opponents of the Mayoral Academy Accountability and Equity Act’s financial changes, then, is would they be willing to support a different bill that excludes the funding clause (however reasonable and just I think it is in the case of Achievement First) but includes the other amendments? If so, then it makes sense to me for all parties involved to put their heads together and write up this new legislation. And if not—if these mayoral academies continue to stand in opposition to these basic accountability functions—then I think we all have to ask ourselves just what these schools have to hide?

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