Public schools across the state could open up to students from other districts, under a new bill from Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner.
Wagner unveiled the proposal during his first State of Education address to the General Assembly Wednesday.
The program would let students choose where to attend school, even if it’s outside their district. The program will be voluntary, as schools will have to decide whether they want to participate. His plan includes greater autonomy for teachers and principals over things like textbooks, length of the school day and personnel. Wagner said the proposal as part of a plan to improve neighborhood schools.
“What we’re trying to address is too many of our families, when they don’t see their students’ needs met in the district schools, they go to the private schools or they go the charter schools,” said Wagner. “We’re just trying to level the playing field so district schools can compete.”
Wagner said for schools that choose to participate, admissions criteria cannot discriminate against students with special education needs.
“So if they open their doors in a general program, they would have to open their doors to all students,” said Wagner. “And then make the decision about whether or not they believe they can cover the risks of a student who may have more expensive needs.”
Critics may fear a mass exodus from lower performing schools, but Wagner said he believes that’s unlikely.
“We do not envision that people are going to change schools in droves. Most people want to go to their neighborhood school,” said Wagner. “What we’re trying to do is just open up space, that if a student really wants or needs to be in arts academy, that those arts academies exist, or a science or an engineering academy.”
Wagner said Massachusetts has a similar policy, and he believes it will make public schools more attractive to residents and families. The proposal must be approved by the General Assembly. Governor Gina Raimondo has already voiced her support for the program.