Advocates seek new legislation for School Choice

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PROVIDENCE — The dome of the Rhode Island State House was illuminated in yellow, the signature color of National School Choice Week, as legislators and the general public rallied in the rotunda on Thursday, January 29. Students from local private schools performed musical arrangements while parents and students alike wore yellow scarfs and held signs that read, “I am a child, not a ZIP code.”

The event, which is held annually, was jointly hosted by leaders from five groups, including Rhode Island Families for School Choice, an initiative that seeks to give parents the freedom to choose a school that best meets the needs of their children, as well as provide them with financial vouchers to ease costs. Under the current educational system, public school students are assigned to attend schools by their zip code.

“We all agree that every child deserves a quality education and every parent should have the freedom and opportunity to choose which school is best for their child,” Rabbi A.D. Motzen, national director of state relations for Agudath Israel of America, said during his keynote address. “But one size doesn’t fit all. Each child is different. They have different talents and different challenges. All or part of the education dollars earmarked for a child should follow the child to the school of their choice, public, charter or private.”

According to a press release, National School Choice Week was America’s largest-ever celebration of opportunity in education. It featured 11,082 independently-organized events across the country as a means to promote all types of educational choice, from traditional public schools to public charter schools, magnet schools, online learning, private schools, and homeschooling.

In 2013, legislation that would permit parents to use some of the public funds set aside for education to send their children to the school of their choice was introduced to the House Committee on Finance. However, it did not advance.

This year, said Bob Coderre, interim director of Rhode Island Families for School Choice, the bill will be resubmitted.

“Our goal is to get the issue moving forward,” Coderre said. “Now that we have the Center for Freedom and Prosperity working with us, we’re really starting to gain some traction.”

Coderre, a single parent whose twin sons are sophomores at St. Raphael Academy in Pawtucket, noted that Mike Stenhouse, chief executive officer of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, “has been having some conversations” with legislators about introducing the new bill.

Stenhouse, who recently launched the Bright Today Educational Choice Campaign, which aims to expand educational opportunities for Rhode Island families, anticipates the bill will be presented this month.

“We believe there’s a need for expanded choice options and we’ve been approached by legislators who want to know how to make that happen legislatively,” said Stenhouse, also noting that legislators wish to remain anonymous until they announce the bill. “As you can imagine, it’s a politically sensitive topic. Until all the ‘I’s’ are dotted and ‘T’s’ are crossed, they want to work on it behind the scenes.”

If the bill is passed, said Stenhouse, it would give parents more flexibility in determining an educational path for their children. But others have concerns, including Tim Ryan, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Superintendents, as well as Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed, who, in published reports last week said she worries about any proposal that involves “diversion from the current funding formula.”

“We’re not talking about diverting any money from the current funding formula,” Coderre said. “We’re talking about putting resources into School Choice to actually make the system better. This is not going to dismantle public education.”

Coderre, along with Stenhouse, said programs like School Choice help public schools. The notion that School Choice would “financially cripple” public schools, said Stenhouse, is a myth.

“People think that we are out to purposely hurt public schools [and] that’s not true,” Stenhouse said. “What we want to do is provide an option for dissatisfied parents to create competition within the public school system that national research shows actually improves and benefits the public school system because of higher ability standards and competition.”

He went on to say that a “well-crafted bill” would help maintain and increase funding per student for those who remain in the public school system, as it would create net cost-savings within school districts. Those savings during the span of 10 to 15 years, he said, could approach eight figures. “That number sounds crazy, but right now there are about 17,000 students in private schools,” Stenhouse said. “Using the average cost per student of roughly $15,000 for a public school student, if all those private schools came back in, that would increase costs by hundreds of millions of dollars. By having some students who are dissatisfied, the public schools are saving money.”

Coderre also said it’s important to note that Rhode Island has already adopted School Choice in the form of a child tax credit program that was signed into law by Governor Don Carcieri in 2006 and is currently capped at $1.5 million. Corporations are able to apply for either a one-year or two-year tax credit. If they are awarded a two-year credit, the company must contribute the same amount for each of two years. But companies are shut out by the cap each year. If the cap were raised, the credit program would be able to accommodate $3 million in corporate tax credits.

“Companies that wanted to buy these tax credits weren’t able to because there’s a cap,” Coderre said. “We’re looking to take what’s working in School Choice, which is the child tax credit, and expand that by $3 million. We want to be able to show by putting resources into the Child Tax Credit program, as well as potentially a school voucher program, it will improve education in Rhode Island and give parents a choice in where they want to send their child, whether it be a public, private, charter or home school.”