That's the question a legislative panel is investigating. Lawmakers are scheduled to hear from several local elected officials and school leaders on Friday.
Their concern is the impact of the state formula for funding public schools, and the way it calculates tuition for charter schools.
Cumberland Town Councilor Arthur Lambi, a Republican, is among those planning to testify. According to Lambi, Cumberland sends about $3 million to charter schools every year, and that number is expected to grow as charter schools add more seats.
The problem, says Lambi, is that despite having fewer students, the district is not realizing enough savings to make up for the loss of funding.
"If charters are in our future to stay, then we really need to have an honest discussion about the true cost of removing a child from a classroom," Lambi said. "Because you still need a teacher in a classroom. You need an assistant principal and a principal, and a school nurse, and the janitors and buses and utilities."
Lambi also sees a "redundancy" in building charter schools alongside traditional public schools.
"You don’t need to look any further than Broad Street in Cumberland here to see that we have one elementary school there, and there are two brand new buildings within a stone’s throw and these two new buildings are charter schools," Lambi said.
Cumberland is home to the Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy, which draws students from several communities, including Central Falls and Lincoln.
Advocates from Blackstone Valley Prep and other charter schools emphasize that they are providing important options for parents and students. They often point out that charter schools are also public schools.
The charter school movement began, in part, as an effort to spur improvements in public schools by creating competition. Critics believed public schools were hamstrung by factors such as union contracts, which govern everything from staffing and employee benefits to the length of the school day.
In crafting the state funding formula, some charter school advocates fought for a "money follows the child" system, arguing that it did not make sense to provide state funding to districts for students who no longer attended their schools. The change was seen as crucial to continued expansion of public charter schools.
Lincoln Rep. Jay O'Grady is chairing the panel on charter school funding. O'Grady says he also plans to look at disparities in the rates of tuition paid by different districts.