The expansion of charter schools has been the subject of contentious debate in Rhode Island in recent years. So much so that state lawmakers are fielding a raft of bills this session aiming to limit charter school growth or change their funding method.
Cumberland mother and former educator Erika Sanzi weighed in with a March 5, 2015, commentary in The Providence Journal supporting school choice and charter schools. The piece was entitled "Taking aim at R.I.'s poor, minority students."
In it, Sanzi faulted the Cumberland School Committee for passing a resolution asking the General Assembly to halt charter school expansion until a new funding mechanism is created. Such a move, would disproportionately impact poor, minority families, she said.
She stated, "Of the 10,000 Rhode Island children in charter school lotteries for the fall, more than 70 percent are poor (indicating that their family’s income qualifies them for free or reduced-priced lunch). In addition, a majority of them are students of color."
We reached out to Sanzi to learn what sources she used to support her statement.
We also contacted the Rhode Island League of Charter Schools, which advocates for and supports 18 of the state’s 25 charter schools.
We quickly learned that there is no firm data on the race, ethnicity or income levels of the large pool of children who are in the lotteries for charter school slots -- the group Sanzi was talking about.
However, there is ample data on the children who actually enroll in the schools. As we’ll see, that helped us evaluate Sanzi’s claim.
Stephen A. Nardelli, executive director of the league, told us that the charter school lottery application does not request or require information about a prospective student’s ethnicity or socio-economic status. The league does not track such information, but he said that 11,889 students had applied in 2014 for 1,252 openings and that about 7,000 are enrolled overall.
We also reached out to the state Department of Education. The state doesn’t track the ethnicity or economic status of charter school applicants either, Elliot Krieger, a spokesman for the department, said.
But the state does calculate the ethnicity and economic status of students enrolled in charter schools. An April 2014 education department report showed that in October 2013, 52 percent of the students were Hispanic; 16 percent were black; and 6 percent were another ethnicity or multi-ethnic, while 26 percent were white.
Across Rhode Island, Hispanics comprised 23 percent of the state’s total public school student population, 8 percent were black, 62 percent white and 7 percent were another ethnicity or multi-ethnic, according to the report.
That same report showed that 67 percent of the charter school students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, a key indicator of poverty. That compared with 47 percent of public school students overall.
Both sets of figures were close to those in Sanzi’s claim.
When Sanzi got back to us, she acknowledged that the state doesn’t track the makeup of those applying to charter schools, but she produced two reports based on more current Department of Education numbers.
Her calculations, which used data on school enrollments over the course of the entire 2013-2014 school year, placed the percentage of charter school students that qualified for free and reduced-price lunches at 72 percent.
Her calculations on the ethnic makeup of charter schools were based on October 2014 data. They showed that the ethnic composition of the charter school population had remained basically steady from 2013 to 2014, with Hispanics comprising 54 percent of the student body; blacks 16 percent; whites 25 percent; and other ethnicities 6 percent.
She also cited a lottery report from Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy, the only school to collect information on its applicants. The school found that 69 percent of the applicants qualified for free and reduced-price lunches in 2013-2014 and that the percentage climbed to 72 percent the next school year.
Sanzi noted that, according to the state, 78 percent of the charter school students come from just four communities: Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence and Woonsocket.
She then looked to the 2014 Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook. That study found high percentages of low income students in each of those four cities: Central Falls (81 percent); Pawtucket (78 percent); Providence (80 percent); and Woonsocket (75 percent).
She also cited a report out of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University that shows that three out of four students in those communities are Latino.
Erika Sanzi said that "Of the 10,000 Rhode Island children in charter school lotteries for the fall, more than 70 percent are poor (indicating that their family’s income qualifies them for free or reduced-priced lunch). In addition, a majority of them are students of color."
As we’ve shown, there’s no way for Sanzi -- or anyone else -- to know the precise demographic makeup of the children in Rhode Island’s charter school lotteries.
But state records show that about three-quarters of the students who actually are enrolled in charter schools are students of color, and that 78 percent are drawn from just four communities, each with a high percentage of poor and Hispanic children.
Those numbers and the other evidence we found suggest that Sanzi’s statement is not only accurate, but perhaps understated.
Because the statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information, we rate it Mostly True.