Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner is backing a plan to add 2,192 seats to the charter for Achievement First, a mayoral academy that currently operates two elementary schools in Providence.
Wagner has also come out in favor of more modest expansions at the Paul Cuffee School in Providence and the Learning Community Charter School in Central Falls.
Wagner is scheduled to discuss his recommendations in more detail on Tuesday at a meeting of the state Council on Elementary and Secondary Schools.
The most contentious request, from Achievement First, has generated strong opposition from some members of the Providence City Council. The city's auditor estimates the expansion could cost Providence schools as much as $29 million a year in lost state, local and federal aid. One city councilor, Sam Zurier, has warned the plan could have a catastrophic effect on the city's other school children.
"While everyone here has the best of intentions, the sad truth is that if someone wanted to break the Providence Public Schools, it would be hard to devise a more effective plan than the application now before the Council," Zurier wrote, in a report to the state Council on Elementary and Secondary Schools.
Achievement First officials counter that the expansion would take place gradually, over a 10-year period, and provide quality education, helping more students prepare for college. They point to other positive impacts, such as savings on remedial education and property values bolstered by good public schools.
Achievement First serves students from Providence, Cranston, Warwick and North Providence, but the vast majority -- some 86 percent -- come from Providence. The school expects to continue attracting a large proportion of Providence students, so any expansion would have the most significant impact on Providence.
In recommending that the state Council on Elementary and Secondary Schools approve the expansion, Wagner cited the schools' proven track record in academics.
"If treated as a district, Achievement First would have the second highest percentage of 3rd grade students meeting or exceeding expectations in Math (76%)," Wagner's analysis noted.
Other considerations include the Achievement First network's prior experience operating and expanding schools in Connecticut and New York, and the overall lack of good public school options in Providence.
"Currently close to 15,000 students in Providence are enrolled in historically struggling schools," the recommendation said. "Approving this expansion request will result in the creation of close to 2,000 new high quality educational opportunities for these 15,000 students."
While the state Department of Education acknowledged the fiscal impact to Providence schools, it urged the Council to consider other factors, including the future earnings power of students who receive a high-quality education.
Education reform advocacy group RI-CAN put out the following statement through spokesman Bill Fischer:
"There has also been too much focus on trying to calculate fiscal impact instead of focusing on what the expansion means for parents and the community. Too many people have been looking at only one side of the ledger. Providence Public Schools will not have to bear the cost of educating over two thousand students when this expansion is fully implemented. You cannot make a sustainable argument that Providence could potentially lose 10% of their student population and not be able to reduce expenses."
In other recommendations to the Council, Wagner called for the denial of three charter school expansions and the denial of one proposal for a new charter school, Charette in Providence.
Wagner urged against the addition of 46 seats at the Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts (TAPA), a Providence high school, saying it not yet established a strong record of achievement. He similarly recommended denials for the Segue School in Central Falls, which sought to add an elementary school and the Greene School in West Greenwich.
The Council on Elementary and Secondary Schools is expected to discuss the charter school proposals on Tuesday, but a vote is not expected until December 20th.