This article, written by Linda Borg, originally appeared in the Providence Journal.

State education Commissioner Ken Wagner strongly endorsed an application by Achievement First charter school to more than triple its current enrollment to 3,112 students by 2026-2027.

Wagner, in a lengthy brief to the Council of Elementary and Secondary Education, concluded that the charter school proposal is “both academically and economically prudent and will result in high-quality academic opportunities for Rhode Island’s students _ particularly for the approximately 15,000 students that currently attend a Providence school that’s been identified for many years as in need of dramatic improvement.”

Wagner’s recommendation, which goes before the council for discussion on Tuesday, stands in sharp contrast to the opinions of the Providence City Council, the American Federation of Teachers, and, to some degree, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza. The mayor, who supports a more limited proposal, said he will not favor the full expansion unless the charter school pays for the financial losses incurred the city’s public schools.

Read Wagner’s endorsement.

The city’s internal auditor estimates that the district public schools will lose between $28 and $29 million annually by the time Achievement First reaches full enrollment. The analysis by the Rhode Island Department of Education estimates that the district will lose $35 million, of which $8 million comes from the city in local aid. The rest comes form the state.

The per pupil spending follows the child from a traditional public school to a charter school.

Critics say if the charter school grows to 3,112 children, it will have a devastating impact on the traditional public schools and effectively create a parallel school system.

By state law, Wagner must consider the financial impact of a charter school expansion on the sending school districts, in this case, Providence, Cranston, North Providence and Warwick. But 86 percent of the charter’s students come from Providence, so the impact will be greatest there.

Wagner, however, also looked at the educational benefits of the charter school, which operates two elementary schools in Providence and is part of 32-school network in New York and Connecticut.

Achievement First, he said, has proven that it can provide a top notch education to Rhode Island’s neediest children.

“If treated as a district, Achievement First would have the second highest percentage of third graders meeting or exceeding (state) expectations in math,” Wagner wrote. Achievement First’s performance in English, with 46 percent of its students meeting or exceeding the state standard, is also higher than the state average.

Wagner wrote that Achievement First, once it expands, will create almost 2,000 new “high-quality educational opportunities” for the roughly 15,000 students who attend historically low-performing schools in Providence.

He wrote that the fiscal benefits to students who attend the charter are significant. An analysis by the Rhode Island Innovative Policy Lab at Brown University reported that if approximately 2,200 more students attend the charter school from kindergarten through grade 12, these students will cumulatively generate between $590.6 million and $727.3 million in mean lifetime earnings.

Wagner’s report also cited the high demand for seats at AF _ over 900 parents submitted applications for 159 seats for the 2016-2017 school year.

Achievement First spokeswoman Amanda Pinto said the school is “thrilled” by Wagner’s recommendation.

“When considering the fiscal impact,” she said, “The most important factor is the economic value of providing thousands more Rhode Island students with a high-quality education that equips them for success in college, career and life.”

But City Council member Sam Zurier, a vocal critic, said Wagner’s analysis doesn’t consider all of the factors required by the General Assembly, especially the charter’s overwhelming negative impact on the finances and education of the children in Providence.

Bill Fischer, spokesperson for the Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now, a pro-charter organization, said, “Too many people have been looking only at one side of the ledger. The Providence public schools will not have to bear the cost of educating over 2,000 students when this expansion is fully implemented.”

Elorza on Friday repeated his earlier statements that he “will not and can not support” the expansion to 3,112 students unless he is assured that the money needed to make up the loss of students is identified and that the district isn’t hurt.


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