Ocean State: An education

by John Perilli

Few issues hit closer to home or are more sensitive than education. For every philosophy and teaching style, there is a clamor from supporters and detractors, making the unification of policy on any level a delicate task. Add in the fact that the average cost of attending a four-year college is rising at over twice the rate of inflation, and you have one great sociopolitical mess, from pre-K to postsecondary. Rhode Island’s schools have not escaped this morass: Our schools have done dismally in national rankings, and our funding for higher education is one of the lowest levels in the U.S. With all this to confront, the Rhode Island Department of Education, headed by Commissioner Deborah Gist, has taken action.

Until recently, education governance at the state level in R.I. was divided up between two committees. The Board of Regents handled elementary and secondary schools, and the Board of Governors oversaw postsecondary education. As of 2013, these were unified into a single new Board of Education, with 11 members not only from the field of education but also social work, law, and medicine. This will make policy development more efficient, but will have some concerned opponents worrying about a heavy-handed, distant committee intruding into municipal matters. In the Senate, each candidate was peppered on a range of topics, including the dreaded standardized test and the nuanced but surprisingly divisive issue of charter versus public schools.

If the words “NECAP” or “ASVAB” strike dread in your heart, then standardized tests might be your education issue of highest concern. In 2010, the Board of Regents increased the weight of standardized test on a Rhode Island student’s graduation eligibility to one third, up from ten percent. Not only does this put an unprecedented burden on students who do well on tests, it also hits low-income students especially hard. Some Providence students were so infuriated at this new high-stakes testing formula that they marched on the Department of Education dressed as zombies, yelling “no education, no life.”

Sen. Harold Metts (D-Providence) questioned all candidates for the new Board on the subject. Mercifully for Providence’s adolescent undead, many of them expressed aversion to the high-stakes formula.

“The [New England Common Assessment Program] test was never intended to serve as the sole criteria for graduation,” opined Patrick Guida, a nominee to the new board. “I don’t like the idea of percentages.”

Another issue the Board will likely have to confront is the issue of funding. How much money should our public colleges — Rhode Island College, Community College of Rhode Island, and the University of Rhode Island — receive annually? What balance should be struck between taxpayer burden and funding for higher education? How much state aid should be given to local public schools?

Luckily, this issue comes partially solved. In 2010, the General Assembly passed a new education funding formula, in which all the state’s public schools are given a uniform base of funding plus additional money if a school is dealing with higher-than-average enrollment or a large percentage of low-income students. Whether or not this solution will be a permanent fix or soon become the target for more reform efforts remains to be seen.

A more pressing concern at the moment is higher education. As tuition at public schools rises and the economy sputters, many states are cutting back on public college funds. Rhode Island is a disappointing 42nd in the country in terms of higher education funding, but we did receive a nation-high $30.2 million in federal stimulus money for our colleges. We’re on the right track, but tuition is still rising, and Rhode Island’s economy may not keep up with the demands for funding.

The federal government has also awarded Rhode Island with $75 million in Race to the Top grants, but this is much more of a mixed blessing. The federal money did not come without conditions: President Barack Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wanted their own plans implemented. Tensions over priorities boiled to the surface, and in 2010 a full-blown education battle broke out in the bankrupt city of Central Falls. Over two dozen teachers resigned or were fired, and school suspensions more than tripled. Central Falls persists as one of Rhode Island’s most underperforming school districts, and the future of Central Falls’ public schools is uncertain.

Not all Rhode Island students opt to attend public schools, however. Another key education issue is whether or not to provide support for charter schools, many of which follow non-traditional curricula. Many education activists insist upon staying the course with public schools, but as Brown’s own Claire Peracchio has reported, students in some charter schools outscore their public school peers on standardized tests by nearly 30 percent.

This issue might seem less important at first glance compared to matters of funding and oversight, but election battle lines have already been drawn around it. Last September, in the Senate District 3 Democratic primary (a district that includes Brown), the only major issue that separated progressives Gayle Goldin and Maryellen Butke was education reform. Butke, the former executive director of the reformist organization RI-CAN, was a much stronger proponent of charter schools than Goldin, who had the backing of public school teachers’ unions. In the end, Goldin won in a close race, but the debate between charter schools and traditional public schools is far from settled.

These issues are but a selection of the welter of education issues facing Commissioner Gist and the new Board of Education in the coming months. Don’t expect cleanliness, no matter how reform efforts turn out. There will be fighting, endless debate, and bitter feelings, but if we’re fortunate, there will also be improvement in our schools to make the struggle worth it.


photo by Alamosbasement: http://www.flickr.com/photos/alamosbasement/3564909187/