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Friday, February 22, 2013

Charter Chatter

A world where everyone is “special”
By Will Collette

NOTE: there's a second Council meeting this month - Monday, Feb 25th. Charter schools will be one of the main topics.

At the February 12 Town Council meeting, the Chariho School District appeared on the agenda several times in various forms. At the beginning of the meeting, Town Council Boss Tom Gentz (CCA) announced that because Chariho Superintendent Barry Ricci couldn’t attend that night’s meeting, the Chariho agenda items would be postponed to the second half of the Council’s February meeting which will be held on February 25th[1].

One of the postponed Chariho items was a continuation of last month’s surreal discussion of the relationship of Chariho to Charter Schools. That item was also “continued” to the February 25th meeting so that Superintendent Ricci could be part of it, as well as a representative of the state charter school association.

But despite the early decision to “continue” these issues to the February 25th meeting, Gentz – ever the nimble and competent meeting chair – allowed extended discussion on these subjects anyway. I guess Gentz subscribes to the philosophy that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.

Superintendent Ricci doesn't want
taxpayers to pay for inferior schools
To re-cap the charter school controversy: Superintendent Ricci is seeking support from the three Chariho towns for a legislative initiative that would allow school districts to refuse to pay for students to go to a charter school if that charter school fails to perform at least as well as the public school. The question before the Charlestown Town Council is whether or not to adopt a resolution supporting that legislative initiative.

In recent years, Chariho has steadily increased the quality of education its students receive to the point where it is now one of the top-ranked school districts in the state. New NECAP scores just released last week showed even higher numbers for Chariho.

Richmond’s Town Council and the Chariho School Committee have already signed on. Hopkinton will consider the resolution later this month.

Distinguished educational expert Donna Chambers - indeed an expert on any subject that contains the word "charter" - spoke against the proposal at the January meeting, even after admitting she had not even read Ricci’s proposal and had not done any research on the subject. She just thought it was wrong to use academic achievement as the measure of a school’s quality (she did not offer any alternative method of measure, e.g. auras, vibes, Craig’s List, I Ching, quantum physics, etc.). 

Click here for my earlier coverage. Click here to hear the discussion, including Chambers’ remarks, at the January meeting.

But Councilor Slattery seems to be fine with that
Based on Chambers’ expert testimony, the Council majority decided to defer action on Ricci’s request for support until their February meeting.

Meanwhile, the legislation sought by Superintendent Ricci has been introduced in both the House and Senate, with all of our area Representatives and Senators as sponsors.

The House bill, H-5055, has been introduced by Reps. Donna Walsh, Larry Valencia, Brian Patrick Kennedy and Lisa Tomasso. The Senate bill, S-13, has been introduced by Senators Dennis Algiere and Cathie Cool Rumsey.

At the February 12th meeting, Donna Chambers once again took to the podium to denounce the bill. She urged all those present to contact their Senators and Representatives to ask them to block the bill. Then, she either remembered – or someone reminded her – that Donna Walsh was one of the sponsors (duh). In fact, all of Charlestown’s General Assembly legislators are sponsors. Indeed, all the legislators whose districts include parts of Chariho are sponsors.

A number of parents also stepped up to the microphone to speak on this subject. Most of them were the parents of children who were in some way “special” meaning too special to go to public school[2]. Just about all of them were sending their kids to the Compass School in South Kingstown on Chariho’s dime.

All of them were afraid of Ricci’s proposal even though Ricci’s proposal would not affect them because Compass’s achievement scores are higher than Chariho.

But as one mother put it, maybe that could change and Compass’s performance rating could slip, and then what would happen to her kid?

Ah, those tricky “What if?” questions. Well, first of all, it’s in Compass’s self-interest to make sure it keeps its performance high, if for no other reason than to be competitive. And if Compass’s standards fall or Chariho's continue to rise, why shouldn’t Chariho insist that the students return to Chariho rather than stay in a school with lesser standards?

The pro-charter school parents had that contingency covered: it’s because they should have the right of free choice, to be able to school their children however they wish even if it's substandard. They also claimed that the CCA candidates campaigned on the platform of free choice in schooling. 

If the CCA actually did make that a campaign point, I sure missed it and I really worked at paying close attention to every CCA utterance. But none of the CCA councilors challenged that claim. Cowards.

But this “free choice” argument is specious. These parents have lots of free choices for educating their special kids – the question is whether the taxpayers should be required to pay extra so their special kids can get an inferior education. If Compass or any of the other alternative schools perform as well or better, there’s no issue. If they under-perform, no public funding.

But for reasons that sounded a lot more ideological than logical, this concept seemed repugnant to Chambers and those charter school parents. Click here to watch and listen to the “debate” for yourself.

OMG, run for your lives! Gentz has got a plan!
Later in the meeting, on another agenda item that is being deferred to February 25th, Gentz decided to open up discussion on his peculiar idea to revamp the way that the three Chariho towns divide up their shares of funding for the system. Gentz advanced an idea for changing the state’s Chariho Act to achieve his inscrutable goals.

Oddly, the most vigorous rebuttal came from Gentz’s CCA partner, Councilor Dan Slattery who actually got pretty snippy with Gentz about the wisdom of opening up the Chariho Act for revision and whether Gentz’s proposal was in Charlestown’s best interest.

Gentz seemed befuddled at the sharp criticism from his usual ally and acquiesced to Slattery’s counter-proposal that the Council needed to form an Ad Hoc Committee to consider this matter (presumably, they will consider it to death). Click here to watch and listen. In the end, the Council voted in favor of Slattery’s ad hoc committee approach.

All of this discussion about Chariho agenda items that, technically, were bumped from the agenda and deferred to the February 25th Council meeting is a pretty clear sign that the February 25th meeting is going to be a zoo. The battle lines pit right-wing, anti-public education ideologues versus the supporters of quality public education.

I’m waiting for someone to revive the old proposal to either break up Chariho or for Charlestown to secede. The last time this was discussed, the price tag to Charlestown taxpayers to secede and set up a Charlestown school system was around $25 million – more than $30 million in today’s dollars. The Council majority just recently appointed failed Council candidate and secession advocate Ron Areglado to the Chariho School Committee.

February 25 is the date. Mark your calendars.


[1] The Council wisely decided that it needed to hold two meetings this month since there were a lot of agenda items including several that would require lots of time. Too much for one meeting. Progressive Charlestown will provide you with more detail on the February 25th, TC Part Deux session as the date draws nearer.

[2] I think just about every parent, if asked, would say their kid is “special.” The question is whether this specialness should come with privileges.