Governor Gina Raimondo said Wednesday she would veto at least one bill designed to make it harder to open new charter schools. Speaking at an on-the-record lunch with reporters, Raimondo discussed a bill that would require local elected officials to sign off on new or expanding charter schools.
"That is a bill that I could not support because its intent and the practical effect of it is that there would never be another charter," said Raimondo.
The bill, which has passed the House but not the Senate, requires approval from each municipality that would be served by a proposed charter school. Raimondo said she would veto the bill if it reaches her desk .
Over kale and broccoli salad, Raimondo engaged in a wide-ranging discussion of education issues with about half a dozen reporters. She promoted her "school empowerment" plan, which would give more flexibility to individual schools and allow students to transfer from one district to another. State education officials unveiled the plan at the end of March.
"The school is the unit of change, " Raimondo said. "That is the big idea."
While she acknowledged that Rhode Island must "attack" its lowest performing schools, Raimondo said she feels the new policy will accomplish that.
"Too many people say they need more flexibility to move forward," the governor commented, citing her own experience with teachers in her children's former elementary school as one example. "This is about engaging teachers and principals and students and families."
Raimondo stressed that the program is voluntary but did not rule out the possibility that some schools may be forced to embrace the empowerment model at some future date, if they fail to improve. Addressing concerns from teachers unions that the plan threatens contract agreements, Raimondo said she disagrees.
"There is no intention to disrupt contracts," she said, adding that her administration is working with unions and teachers and hopes to overcome their concerns.
On one of the most hotly-contested education issues, the addition of test scores as a requirement for high school graduation, Raimondo stopped short of taking a clear position. She said State Education Commissioner Ken Wagner is looking into the question.
"A diploma has to mean something, that you have the set of skills that a 12th grader should have" Raimondo said, noting that she often gets questions from businesspeople about what the state is doing to ensure the quality of high school graduates.
Rhode Island had planned to link test scores to a high school diploma in 2014, but public criticism of the policy eventually led the General Assembly to put it on hold until 2020 at the earliest. State Education Commissioner Ken Wagner has said he is reviewing the policy.
Raimondo defended a proposal in her budget proposal that reduces funding for charter schools. The schools have protested the reduction, saying it could threaten the future viability of some charter schools.
But Raimondo said the proposal fixes an imbalance in the state funding formula that was unfair to traditional school districts. She cited "record funding" in her budget for education, including an increase in funds for English language learners.
"The plan here is to make sure charters have the money that they need to be successful," Raimondo said. "But also we have to level the playing field between the districts and the charter schools."