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The Charter School Future

The state's Board of Regents shot down a proposed Cranston charter school today, by a 7-1 vote, after a heated debate that pitted Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and the state's school reform movement against the Cranston school committee and teachers unions.

Fung and the reformers said the proposed school, a so-called "mayoral academy," was a vital step toward improving education for the most at-risk students. The school committee and teachers unions said it would be a drain on the larger school system.

The vote is certainly a big defeat for Fung, a rising star in the Rhode Island Republican Party who invested heavy political capital in the proposal.

But Bill Fischer, spokesman for Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, says today's defeat amounted to "losing the battle to win the war."

That's because Governor Lincoln Chafee, who has been skeptical about the value of charter schools, wrote a letter - read aloud at the Regents meeting - raising doubts about the Cranston proposal, but backing a mayoral academy in neighboring Providence.

This is the first time, Fischer notes, that the governor - who appoints the Board of Regents - has voiced public support for mayoral academies, a special brand of charter school that locates governance in municipal government.

Chafee, in his letter, pointed to broader public support for a mayoral academy in the capital city. And he suggested the Providence school could draw students from a number of communities, ensuring that any financial drain would be spread among various cities and towns rather than concentrated in a city or two.

He also pledged to visit a charter school in New Haven, Connecticut run by Achievement First, the charter management company that was to run the Cranston mayoral academy and would, presumably, run the Providence iteration.

But another part of his letter may, in the end, prove even more consequential. Chafee called for a comprehensive study of charter schools in Rhode Island and how they've performed.

Charters nationwide have not fared any better than traditional schools. And with an era of greater public-sector austerity approaching, they'll have to do better than that to keep the money flowing.

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