An Analysis of Charter Public Schools in Rhode Island

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) released “An Analysis of Charter Public Schools in Rhode Island,” a look at the key issues surrounding charter public schools in the state, today. The report outlines charters’ history and legal framework; school, enrollment, and demographic data; financial structures; and student outcomes. Following its analysis, RIPEC also offers several recommendations for policymakers.

“Charter schools are integral to Rhode Island’s public K-12 system; however, their expansion is at a critical juncture,” said Justine Oliva, Manager of Research at RIPEC. “With a charter moratorium being considered by the General Assembly and the state entering the tenth year of the school funding formula, it is an appropriate time to reflect on where there have been successes and where improvements need to be made.”

Rhode Island’s first charter public school opened in 1997. Today, there are 22 charters operating out of ten host communities. Over 10,000 students attend charter schools, amounting to 7.4% of the state’s total public school student body and comprising a far higher share of students residing in Rhode Island’s urban core. The demand for a charter school education continues to outpace the number of available seats. In the 2020-2021 school year, there were 5.4 unique applicants for every available charter public school seat in Rhode Island.

RIPEC found that approximately eighty percent of charter public school students reside in the state’s four poorest communities: Providence (47.3%), Pawtucket (14.0%), Central Falls (13.6%), and Woonsocket (4.4%). Unsurprisingly, then, charter public school students are also more likely to come from low-income families than public school students overall (71.1% vs. 47.8%). Charter public schools also have a larger share of students with limited English proficiency and students of color. However, charters serve a smaller share of special education students.

On the 2018-2019 RICAS for ELA/literature, charter public school students outperformed district students (42.2% proficiency compared to 38.3%), and in math performed nearly nine percentage points greater (38.3% proficiency compared to 29.4%). At the high school level, results were varied. On the 2018-2019 SAT, charters on average were outperformed by districts in both math and reading and writing.

“Considering that approximately four in five charter school students reside in the state’s urban core, which are among the lowest performing districts in the state, the proficiency rate of charter public schools overall is even more remarkable,” Oliva added.

The fight over charter expansion has typically centered on the fiscal impact to sending districts. Rhode Island’s funding system requires sending districts to provide their local per pupil share to charter schools for each student enrolled in a charter and districts also lose the state per pupil share for each student attending a charter. Sending districts can hold back a portion of their local share to account for so-called unique costs and, in the case of students attending mayoral academies, for teacher pension obligations. As a result, all districts withhold at least 7.0 percent of their local share from their charter tuition payments and some districts withhold far greater proportions. In total, 8.9 percent of local per pupil contributions in the state were held back in FY 2021.

Factoring in all sources of funding—federal, state, local, and private—charter public schools together had per pupil expenditures that were 16.4% lower than Rhode Island’s overall per pupil expenditures ($15,444 vs. $17,983) and lower than every district in the state but Woonsocket ($15,372) in FY2019.

Based on its analysis, RIPEC offers several recommendations to policymakers:

  • The state should support new charter public schools and the expansion of existing charters, particularly charter schools focused on serving students who reside in low-performing school districts, rather than impose a moratorium on charter expansion.
  • While charter public schools are high performing overall, there are several that have consistently underperformed. Despite the considerable oversight of charter schools, there is room for RIDE to exercise more rigorous action to either improve these low-performing schools through significant conditions around student supports and performance or revoke their charters.
  • Policymakers should work to better understand the reasons for successful outcomes in charter public schools and seek to replicate these practices in traditional public schools.
  • Charter school expansion implicates real financial issues for sending districts under the school funding formula, but as charter public schools are already funded at a lower level, the solution is not to cut farther into the local share for charter public schools. Rather, policymakers should consider adopting glidepath payments to sending districts, similar to the model used in Massachusetts, to account for the transitional financial challenges charter public school expansion can have on traditional public schools. This would increase education costs, but there is currently considerable additional funding available for K-12 education under the federal American Rescue Plan Act.
  • Policymakers should consider addressing a secondary issue related to funding—that high-cost special education costs are borne more heavily by district schools than charter public schools—by both lowering the threshold for reimbursement and dedicating a larger funding stream to high-cost special education.    

An executive summary is available here.

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