Public Services

Harry Tuttle: Elorza’s Achievement First Decision, explained

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza poked a hornet’s nest on Monday when he suggested at a meeting of the Achievement First Providence (AFP) board, which he chairs, that he is not going to move to approve the addition of 1,000 more students to AFP at this time. He did note that he would approve the expansion if the cost to Providence

Published on August 24, 2019
By Harry Tuttle

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza poked a hornet’s nest on Monday when he suggested at a meeting of the Achievement First Providence (AFP) board, which he chairs, that he is not going to move to approve the addition of 1,000 more students to AFP at this time. He did note that he would approve the expansion if the cost to Providence could be offset, for example, by the closure of lower performing charter schools in the city.

Why is the mayor of Providence also the board chair for AFP?

Rhode Island has a unique provision in its charter school law by which a charter school can choose to be a “mayoral academy.” By law, the school’s board must be “chaired by a mayor of an included city or town.” At AFP, the vast majority (87 percent in 2016) of students are from Providence and the chair has always been a Providence mayor, but technically the chair could also be the mayor of Cranston, Warwick or North Providence.

AFP didn’t need to be a mayoral academy. If they’d just become a regular charter school they wouldn’t find themselves in this situation where the chairman of their board is trying to navigate a direct conflict of interest between his responsibility to AFP and his obligations to the City of Providence, and their full expansion would already be underway.

Why is it Mayor Elorza’s decision alone whether this expansion takes place?

When Achievement First asked the Rhode Island Board of Education for authorization to expand from 912 to 3,112 students, Elorza managed to get the agreement to specify that as chair he would have to personally approve the last stage of expansion adding approximately 1,000 schools in a third pair of elementary and middle schools.

Why did the Mayor want that expansion veto and why did the rest of the AFP board agree?

I can’t figure that out. It was a super weird move.

How much would this expansion cost the City of Providence and the Providence Public Schools?

The best study of the cost of this expansion was done in the fall of 2016 by Providence City Council Members Sam Zurier and Brian Principe based on research done by the city’s internal auditor. Their report concluded:

The proposed expansion of the Achievement First from 912 to 3,112 students will, if approved, produce a net loss of more than $170 million from the Providence Public Schools over the next ten years, and more than $28 million each following year.

Essentially, half of that estimated cost is already in motion, and half is awaiting approval by Elorza.

Just doing some back of the envelope calculations based on the internal auditor’s model, you’re looking at about a $14,000 loss to the city budget per student who attends Achievement First instead of the Providence Public Schools. If the schools scale up at 200 students per year, as they usually do, that would add $2.8M in costs for five years until stabilizing at a total ongoing cost of $14M each year in perpetuity.

The above calculations are in 2016 dollars and don’t reflect inflation and the overall growth of per pupil expenditure in Providence, so in reality the future numbers would be higher.

Wouldn’t the district save an equivalent amount of money because they would need fewer teachers, schools, etc.? That is, wouldn’t their costs go down equivalently?

Sadly, no. Say you have a classroom with 20 students. Two of them go to a charter school. You’ve just reduced the money coming into that classroom by 10 percent, but your costs are virtually the same. School systems have predominantly fixed costs and scaling down is inherently difficult and disruptive. The deeper you go into the details, the harder it becomes.

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Zurier’s report attempts to model cost savings from reduced enrollment, and that is already factored into the numbers quoted above. One might argue that they are overly conservative, but it is no good at this point to say that in the abstract, you need some actual calculations and plans to prove it.

Let’s say this expansion will cost Providence $10 million a year, forever, how much money is that to the district?

It is 100 teachers or other professionals in a district with 44 schools. In reality it would probably mean every school losing one or two or three guidance counselors, art or music teachers, or eliminating a foreign language or technology program, maybe dropping an AP course or any remaining electives. Maybe after school programs, internship programs, sports, etc.

It helps ensure that the Providence Public Schools will never escape austerity budgeting.

Also, Providence schools are already projected to have a budget deficit of $42M by 2024. According to the Providence Journal, the schools have lost about $70M in federal aid in recent years, endured cuts to state funding to cities a decade ago under Governor Carcieri, as well as the waiting out the freeze on state funding for school construction which lasted from 2010 to 2015 while our buildings deteriorated.

How do charter school advocates recommend dealing with this?

From the point of view of the operator of a charter school, or advocates of charter schools in general, the fiscal health of the cities and towns they draw students from is “Not My Problem.” Achievement First is as concerned about Providence’s long term structural budget deficit as Walmart was worried about Bennie’s going out of business.

But what about the 1,000 students who might benefit from attending AFP?

In the end, this is a cost-benefit analysis. If you are a leader at City Hall, it is your job to decide if spending money for one thing is better overall than spending the same amount of money on something else, or if increasing spending is worth increasing taxes, or maybe it would be better to reduce taxes.

Charter school advocates have managed to frame this debate about public expenditure as if it occurs in a vacuum. As if asking how to pay for an improvement affecting a fraction of the city’s children is unthinkably callous. Jorge Elorza has apparently been mayor long enough to understand that this is fundamentally a question of weighing the needs of the many against the needs of the few, as Mr Spock might say. Does the benefit to those 1,000 students outweigh the costs to not only the Providence Schools and the city’s finances as a whole?

If someone could come up with a compelling fiscal argument that the city and its schools could bear the cost of this charter school expansion, based on an actual quantitative model, I am sure Mayor Elorza would happily approve it.

As of now, nobody has been able to show this. I kind of doubt anyone has even tried.

Wasn’t there a financial analysis done in 2016 when the expansion was approved by the state board, as Commissioner Infante-Green pointed out in the ProJo?

No. As reported in RI Future at the time, RIDE commissioned a report that cherry picked numbers from a single highly idiosyncratic study of Achievement First scores in New Haven, Connecticut to attempt to project the lifetime earning gains of students who would attend the expanded Achievement First schools in Providence. Not only is this report nonsense on stilts, but it very pointedly avoids the actual question of “the fiscal impact on the city or town (and) programmatic impact on the sending school district” which is what the law requires.

This suggests that RIDE knows that the impact on Providence would be substantial and negative.

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