In 2007, the case could be made that Rhode Island had, dollar for dollar, the worst-performing public education system in the United States. Despite per-pupil expenditures ranking in the top 10 nationally, the state's 8th graders fared no better than 40th in reading and 33rd in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Only three other states ranked above the national average in dollars spent but below the national average in student outcomes. Rhode Island's Latino 8th graders, the state's largest and most rapidly growing minority population, were the lowest-performing in the nation, and the achievement gap between Latino and white students in the state was among the nation's largest.
The state's education troubles were hardly limited to urban districts like Providence, Central Falls, Newport, and West Warwick, all of which had per-pupil expenditures well above the state average. Closing the math proficiency gap between poor and nonpoor students at suburban Cumberland High School, for example, would have required raising the share of low-income students who were proficient from 16 percent to 44 percent. And because of low performance among white students in urban districts, a focus on closing school-level achievement gaps was clearly insufficient: closing the racial achievement gap at Central High School in Providence in 2007 would have entailed raising the proficiency rate of African American students from 7 percent to where white students were, at 9 percent. As a motivating goal, it was modest to the point of incoherence.
In the spring of that year, Cumberland mayor Daniel J. McKee posed a question: "What kind of public school system would we have if we could just build it from scratch?" At the time, I had recently been recruited to serve as director of Cumberland's Office of Children, Youth, and Learning. He and I were sitting in his office on Cumberland's Broad Street, overlooking the Blackstone River. Broad Street extended south through the cities of Central Falls and Pawtucket. One mile down the road was a public school that had been operating continuously since the mid-19th century. Out the mayor's third-story window was a view of the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution.
The answer to the mayor's question turned out to be "mayoral academies," highly autonomous, socioeconomically diverse, regional public schools of choice governed by mayor-led boards. The law permitting mayoral academy charter schools freed the schools from Rhode Island's tenure, prevailing wage, and pension laws. It also required the schools to enroll students from both urban and nonurban districts in order to encourage demographic diversity. A mayor from one of the enrollment districts must chair the board of the school, while other board members represent the other enrolling communities.
Rhode Island's basic profile had changed little by the time U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told a crowd of Rhode Island stakeholders in late 2011, "In math, Rhode Island's white students trail Iceland, Estonia, Slovenia. In reading, Rhode Island's white students trail Australia, Canada, and
Innovation facilitates socioeconomic integration and high performance Belgium ... Rhode Island's white students trail their counterparts in 37 states in math, and in reading, white students here trail their counterparts in 33 states." But thousands of Rhode Island students were gaining new and far better choices for where to attend school.
Blackstone Valley Prep (BVP) was the first mayoral academy charter school to open its doors. Some 1,000 students attend three schools: a K-4 elementary school and grade 5-8 middle school are both fully enrolled, and a growing second elementary school currently serves grades K-2. The three facilities are within two miles of each other on the urban-suburban border of their enrolling communities. …