The Politics of Charter Schools

While visiting The Learning Community Charter School in Pawtucket, Governor Carcieri floated the idea of removing the state’s charter school cap, which limits each school district to two charter schools (except Providence, which is allowed four). Predictably, there are those who disagree with the Governor about removing the cap, even though recent studies have shown that Charter Schools in Rhode Island are working well. (There are also those who oppose charter schools, but that is another debate entirely). One opponent to Carcieri’s idea is Rep. Paul W. Crowley, chairman of the House Finance Subcommittee on Education. However, his opposition seems based less on the merits of the proposal than on political calculation. Crowley stated that he opposed any changes in the cap unless the Governor

promises to do something about the way traditional public schools are financed. “Remember what he did last year,” said Crowley, who also serves on the Board of Regents. “He started a range war in education. It’s nice to say this about charters, but if it’s not part of a comprehensive package on public school funding, it’s not going anywhere.”

Crowley and the Governor have agreed on other education matters in the past, such as a common statewide curriculum, so I don’t automatically assume that he opposes Charter schools or the Governor per se. Rather, it appears he simply wants to employ the Charter School cap issue as a weapon in this so-called “range war.” He probably also doesn’t like the fact that he and the legislature will soon be losing some of their existing educational oversight power. In fact, Crowley proposed in 2001 to increase the seats controlled by legislators on both the Board of Regents and the Board of Higher Education by increasing the number of appointments made by the House and Senate, though State Representatives or Senators would not fill those new seats. As such, it is evident that Crowley is a proponent of the legislature having a greater control of not just educational funding, but also how the money is spent. Crowley is also a member of the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education. With the passage of the Separation of Powers Ammendment, I believe that Crowley will no longer be able to serve in both the Legislature and on the Board of Regents. This probably doesn’t sit well with him, either. In refering to a similar situation regarding the Board of Governors for Higher Education Crowley stated

“As we get into the separation-of-powers issue, we will lose our two seats on the board,” Crowley said, referring to the slots held by a state senator and a state representative on the 15-member Board of Governors. “We’ve got to improve our oversight.”

Almost in answer, Jeffrey Selingo, political editor for the Chronicle of Higher Education, observed, “Lawmakers usually have short-term views and are more parochial, focusing on projects in their districts….They sometimes do what is politically expedient to get themselves reelected.” That is exactly why so many Rhode Islanders supported Separation of Powers in the first place. It seems Rep. Crowley is more interested in the political advantage to be gained by opposing an idea proposed by the Governor than in broadening the access to a successful and innovative method of educating poor and at-risk children. Of course, the issue is more than a political bargaining chip, it is also based upon satisfying a key constituency: teachers and their union. In this, Crowley is not alone as the General Assembly has declared

“The Board of Regents shall not grant final approval for any new charter school to begin operations in the 2005-2006 school year.”

As usual, it is the children, especially those who start with the biggest disadvantages, who are being victimized by both an unnecessary political turf war and legislators who prioritize “special” interests over the best interests of the next generation.

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Donald B. Hawthorne
Donald B. Hawthorne
19 years ago

I published a ProJo editorial in March that noted the ludicrous comments last Spring about Governor Carcieri’s then-proposed modest increase in charter school funding and insignificant reduction in general education funding.
What made the comments so ridiculous was the proposed small changes in funding for the upcoming year were completely dwarfed by the hefty spending increases of prior years. And what results do we have to show for all that spending?
Education is the gateway to the American Dream for all of our children. I continue to be astounded at how politicians, education bureaucrats, and the teachers’ unions oppose every meaningful reform to the ongoing failings of public education. As you note so well, they would rather protect their own special interests than help the most disadvantaged children who most need the benefits resulting from some freedom of educational choice.

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