Calling it "the most restrictive and punitive charter school bill in the entire country," the Rhode Island Mayoral Academies lobbied against the legislation, which would require local approval for new and expanding charter schools.
RIMA, one of several charter school and public education advocacy groups to raise concerns about the legislation, cites negative consequences, including a "fiscal catastrophe" for schools in the process of adding grades.
The group used Providence-based Achievement First, which has opened two elementary schools, as an example.
"Achievement First made a $10 million investment into rehabilitating the city-owned Perry Middle School building based on their planned K-12 model," the group pointed out in a written statement. "Forcing them to exit students after 4th grade puts their schools and their loan in peril."
Students from charter schools packed the Statehouse rotunda on Tuesday, worried about the future of their schools.
"They shouldn't cut funding," said 18-year-old Jesus Nunez of Providence, who credits the Village Green Charter School with helping to get his education back on track.
"In charter schools students actually get the individual attention they need."
While the legislation would not immediately cut funding to charter schools, it would call for a re-examination of the funding formula, which could lead to reductions in the future.
Even more concerning to advocates, the bills would require city or town councils and school committees to sign off on new charter schools or the expansion of existing charter schools. RIMA and others contend this would amount to a de-facto moratorium on new charter school seats because many local officials oppose them.
It would also make it nearly impossible to open charter schools that serve multiple communities, particularly those open to students statewide.
Underlying the call for local approval and funding reviews for charter schools are concerns that they are sapping money from traditional public schools. Many school superintendents and school committees have pointed out that millions of local dollars flow out of their budgets every year when students enroll in charter schools. Yet the cost of maintaining buildings and paying staff does not decrease at comparable levels.
Tim Duffy, who leads the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, points to another issue: the cost of serving students with special needs. Duffy says charter schools serve a much lower percentage of those students.
"23 percent of the per pupil cost on average statewide is for special education cost," Duffy said. "In charter schools that rate is only 9 percent. So every time a charter school accepts a student that is not a special ed student, it has a very detrimental effect on local finances."
Committees in both the House and Senate greenlit the charter school legislation this week, and statehouse observers expect it to be scheduled for a vote prior to the end of the session.
While many charter school advocates say they would not oppose revisiting the state funding formula to address concerns about local budgets, they fear that other parts of the legislation would deal a severe blow to their efforts to push for innovation in public education.