The disconnect between Rhode Island lawmakers and Rhode Island parents came into even sharper focus this week when the Rhode Island Department of Education released the number of children who applied to charter schools for the 2016-2017 school year and we learned that demand for school choice is at an all time high in the Ocean State. Up almost 8 percent from last year, the public charter schools in our tiny state saw 14,628 applications come in for only 1,609 open seats. That means that there are nine applications for every available seat.
In the same week, we learned from the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council that our state underperforms Massachusetts because our lawmakers refuse to put policies in place that would propel our educational system forward and make us more like our neighbor to the north. While Massachusetts sits at number one for the quality of its K-12 education, Rhode Island remains a middling state, performing at or near the national average while spending more than almost all other states. RIPEC finds no strong grounds for the usual excuses of money and demographics.
“Rhode Island and Massachusetts devote similar amounts of financial resources to education and have similar student demographics,” the 57-page report found. RIPEC adds: “socioeconomic characteristics are not sufficient to explain the difference in student performance between the two states.” The difference, RIPEC concludes, is policy. (From Providence Journal, 4/17/26.)
But at the statehouse, the all powerful and uninformed Speaker of the House, Nicholas Mattiello, is on record as being opposed to charter schools. Revealingly, he expressed this view during the same conversation in which he famously said, “I’m not sure I’ve ever thought of the phrase ‘white privilege.’ I don’t think there is a white privilege.” He literally never talks about learning, student achievement or school quality, but he is adamant that, despite our poor performance compared to neighboring states and our widely accepted skills gap, we are doing just fine. In fact, just this weekend he said, “Rhode Island is in excellent shape.”
Excellent for whom, Mr. Speaker?
Are things excellent for our Latino students who are “dead last in the country” according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation report on race? (And you can’t pretend you don’t know because Anna Cano Morales of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams shared it at the Rhode Island Kids Count breakfast you attended last week.)
Are things excellent for the four out of five low-income third graders who are not proficient in English Language Arts?
Are things excellent for the staggering number of low, middle, and even high income students who are forced to pay for remedial (aka high school) classes during their freshman year in college? What about the 74% seeking a bachelor’s degree who eventually drop out?
Adding insult to injury and flying in the face of public demand, our state representatives and senators have sponsored legislation in both chambers that would cripple the charter sector in Rhode Island and make it virtually impossible for even the highest quality schools to expand. The house easily passed their bill 60-11 and the Senate has yet to act on the dangerous bill that’s before them. Parents and education advocates did breathe a small sigh of relief when Governor Raimondo announced that she’d veto any bills that would restrict the growth of charter schools. Still, it is exhausting and demoralizing to know, year after year, that our own elected representatives are mobilized against children’s interests to protect their own interests.
A quick but related aside: over Twitter, I asked, challenged, and pushed my own State Senator, Ryan Pearson, about the anti charter bills that he proudly and repeatedly sponsors. He referred to my questions and assertions as, “daily attacks.” (“Attack” seems to be the new word for a disagreement in 2016). Then, after inviting me to his office for what would be a very inconvenient meeting that I’d need to schedule around work and kids, he abruptly blocked me on Twitter. (Not sure why he slipped the word daily in there since our back and forth took place on one day and any other tweets from me to him were pretty rare.)
@esanzi If you would like come to my office and discuss these issues I would be happy to I am not going to respond to daily tweet attacks
— Ryan Pearson (@RyanWPearson) January 23, 2016
This is my very own state senator. I didn’t call him names. I didn’t use profanity. I simply pushed him on the merits of a bill he was touting in the newspaper and reminded him of past statements that he had made behind a microphone in public and also in writing in recent years. He certainly doesn’t have an obligation to actively engage on Twitter and many people, including elected officials, don’t. But to block a vocal constituent because of one day of questions and critiques seems a bit thin skinned for a state lawmaker.
Former Speaker of the House Gordon Fox did a lot of things wrong, including commit financial crimes, and he is now in prison. To his credit, however, he got one thing right; he helped lay the groundwork for Rhode Island’s low income families of color to have more options. He helped make it so we could see with our own eyes that, regardless of zip code and income and race, all children can learn and achieve.
Try as he might, Speaker Mattiello can’t make it not so.
There is a real hunger for public school options, Mr. Speaker (and Mr. Pearson). Demand is growing. So either do the right thing and get out of the way or push hard for changes to our state education policies and laws so that the system works better for everyone. But stop pretending that things are excellent.
Because they aren’t. Not even close.