Search results: fix the system reform

Fix-the-System Reform Means Preserving the Very Things Causing the Problems

Andy Smarick, of the American Enterprise Institute, explains how President Obama wasted a whole lot of money for zero results in education reform:

The final IES report on the SIG program is devastating to the Obama administration’s legacy. An evaluation commissioned by the US Department of Education and conducted by two highly respected research institutions delivered a crushing verdict: The program failed and failed badly.

As I’ve periodically written, fix-the-system education reforms that seek to preserve the very qualities that are causing the problem — predictable labor union incentives, central planning, the disconnect of decision making from bill paying, and a lack of direct accountability to students and parents — cannot work. We must admit this.

In any area of life except government (specifically, progressive government) it would be considered pathological to look for all sorts of complicated ways to avoid addressing the underlying problem of unhealthy behavior.  Unfortunately, the clear objective of those who do such things (specifically, progressives) is to make government do things it shouldn’t be doing, so of course perpetuating that activity becomes the irreducible factor.


Fix-the-System Education Reform Hits a Ceiling in Rhode Island

Although the division between them has not yet hardened into antagonism, there are two branches of the education reform movement.

One seeks to fix the system that is currently in place, with minimally disruptive reforms to make government-run schools more accountable and responsive, prodded through competition from charter schools, over which government maintains a strong hand.  The other favors stronger competition through school choice, with the funds allocated for students’ education being directed by their parents to any schools that they choose.

For the better part of the last decade, Rhode Island has pursued reforms of the fix-the-system variety.  In both its politics and its test results, however, the Ocean State may now be proving that such reforms have a ceiling.

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NAEP Fruits of Reform in Florida Versus Rhode Island

By way of a contrast of two states when it comes to education reform, Florida has been among the pioneers in school choice–themed education reform, especially for disadvantaged and disabled students.  Meanwhile, Rhode Island pursued a “fix the system” approach that hit a political ceiling when Democrat Governor Lincoln Chafee took the reins.

Results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test give a sense of the divergent results.  The following chart combines 4th and 8th grades and math and reading scores:



Generally, looking at the red line for “all students,” one could suggest that Florida’s reforms were more stable, compared with the now-sinking results for Rhode Island.  But look at the difference for disadvantaged groups!  Poor students (“school lunch”) have made huge progress in Florida, and “disabled” students (including all variations of learning disabilities) have at least kept pace with general improvements, while they’ve lost ground in Rhode Island.

To put it in progressive terms (or the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s 2012 report), look at the closing of the gaps in Florida.


Poorly Educated Millennials and the Urgency of Fixing Education

Testing company ETS has released a report that puts an exclamation point on our need to pursue a comprehensive and rapid reform of our nation’s education system:

One central message that emerges from this report is that, despite having the highest levels of educational attainment of any previous American generation, these young adults on average demonstrate relatively weak skills in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments compared to their international peers. These findings hold true when looking at millennials overall, our best performing and most educated, those who are native born, and those from the highest socioeconomic background. Equally troubling is that these findings represent a decrease in literacy and numeracy skills for U.S. adults when compared with results from previous adult surveys.

As a nation, we’re failing our children and, therefore, ourselves.  We’re spending a great deal of money, and young adults are spending a great deal of time, on activities that we label “education,” but that aren’t producing results up to expectations and that seem designed more to indoctrinate our youth with a particular worldview while funding a particular ideological and political class.  Add to this anecdotal evidence in life and current events suggesting that young adults are less well equipped to handle disagreement.

We go too far, I think, in behaving as if a person’s growth ends when he or she leaves the fantasy land of education and enters “real life”; much the opposite is true.  Still, it represents a tremendous waste of resources if Americans spend the first 20-25 years of their lives being poorly educated and absorbing a corrosive ideology and then must spend the next 10-20 years developing skills they actually need while adjusting their worldviews to reality — doing damage to our culture all the while.

On both fronts, we face an urgent need to break the stranglehold that special interests have on our education system, and the tepid prodding that we’re currently doing in Rhode Island — attempting to improve things little by little without upsetting any of the harmful influences — will not work sufficiently, even if our children had time to wait for its slow implementation.


Fiddling While the Pension System Burns

The Rhode Island media has its eye closely on the drama of the latest proposed settlement of the pension reform lawsuit — that is, the latest attempt to water down a reform that was nowhere near sufficient in the first place.  In contrast, Mike Riley is continuing to point out that the state, the labor unions, and retirees are arguing over free drinks on a sinking cruise ship:

The Rhode Island Pension fund is roughly  $8 billion dollars invested in stocks, bonds, fixed income securities, Private equity, Hedge Funds, other alternatives and cash. Im keeping the numbers simple here. The state commission, headed by Raimondo, has stated expected return of the portfolio to be 7.5% annually and this is to be achieved compounded over the next 20 to 30 years. A 7.5% return on $8 billion is $600 million for Fiscal 2015. According to the report that Treasurer Magaziner was handed, the return thus far in Fiscal 2015 shows a portfolio (Fiscal ytd )loss of 0.71% and including expenses a loss of 1.03% . This 1.03 % loss translates to a negative $80 million dollars.  The State would need to gain $680 million over the next 5 months to achieve their “expected” return.

Bill Rappleye has picked up that thread on Channel 10, but for the segment, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner spit out a bunch of squid oil to muddy the waters, selectively picking five-year investment returns to make it seem as if the state’s pension fund is doing swimmingly.  I noted the problem with this happy talk last month:

The ten-year average investment return is only 6.0 percent, which should be seen as -1.5 percent.  And the longest term number provided, back to July 2000, is 4.8 percent, which should be seen as -2.7 percent. …

If the average for the last 14 years was 4.8 percent, then the average for the next 14 doesn’t have to be 7.5 percent, but more like 10 percent, to make up the difference.  If we’re already seeing diminishing returns from the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing policy and President Obama’s binge of trillion-dollar deficits, what are the next 14 years realistically going to look like?

More importantly, I suggested, it should be the state’s general treasurer who is making this case to everybody.  It should be Seth Magaziner out in the news saying, “Hey, these negotiations are all well and good, but we may only have a few more years left until this pension reform thing starts to spring new leaks.”

Former Treasurer, now Governor, Gina Raimondo lucked out that the Obama Administration and the Federal Reserve proved to be such believers in stock-market-trickle-down theory.  Rather than ease the reins on innovators and working people, they’ve hit the loose-money throttle for the investment market.  That’s given the pension fund and the reform a brief period of looking like they might be fine, although as Riley argues, the state managed to do worse than other funds during the bubble’s latest inflation.


A Voice in the Wilderness, Calling Out the Real School Problem

It can get lonely battling the status quo in Rhode Island, but every now and then, one has reason to believe that many more people share our despairs and hopes than are willing to speak up and give them voice.  Kenneth Petitti’s recent letter to the editor of the Providence Journal is one such bit of evidence:

There is one simple reason why Rhode Island and its schools are in such a mess: the corrupt connection between the politicians and all public employee unions.

After wages and pensions, there’s nothing left for infrastructure. The unions continue to feed at the trough, while the taxpayers yearn to move elsewhere.

Yes, we have a responsibility to renew the government’s school buildings’ ability to host a modern education, but we can’t only do that.  If we don’t change the incentives that led Rhode Island’s ample education resources (read: “high taxes going to education”) to be directed away from basics like building maintenance, we’re only buying a few more years and creating hundreds of millions of dollars in increased ratchets for our taxes.  (That is, payment on our maintenance debt will be built into government budgets and never go away, even as buildings are paid off or even closed.)

We need a new approach.  Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s big long-term fix when it came to pension reform was to give an unelected board the power to hand the General Assembly two choices next time the pension system went off the tracks.  Her big long-term fix for our neglected bridges and roads was a new tolling system.

Those were the wrong approaches to reform, but the school building plan doesn’t even have that, and we’re not going to get the sort of reforms we need until the people who come forward with them know that they’ve got support.


NAEP Scores: Another Unacknowledged Crisis in RI

The word “pleased” should not have appeared anywhere in the statement of Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner upon release of 2017 scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test:

“Nationwide, results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress remained relatively flat, and we saw a similar trend in Rhode Island,” said state Education Commissioner Ken Wagner. “I’m pleased to see us perform better than the national average on fourth grade reading… I hope that our work around early literacy as part of the Third Grade Reading Challenge will speed up that progress going forward.”

That’s like being happy that your child is vomiting a little bit less than half the kids in the sick ward.  Never mind that his or her fever is slightly higher, his or her bleeding out of the eyes is slightly worse, and he or she is slightly more delirious than half the children.

According to the data, Rhode Island students don’t break the 40%-proficient mark in either 4th grade or 8th grade in either math or reading (or science or writing, for that matter).

For some quick perspective take a look at the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s States on the Nation’s Report Card tool, which has been updated to include the latest data.  Rhode Island’s 4th grade reading scores may be above the average state, but we used to have a lead of three points, and that’s now only two.  Worse, the Ocean State’s 8th grade math scores have fallen off a cliff.  Since the 2013 test, RI students’ average score has dropped from 284 to 277.  That’s 2.5%.  In 2013, our children were scoring the same as the average state… no longer.


More broadly, the fashionable distraction to which state bureaucrats lead, which journalists follow, is to lament that “achievement gaps between white students and students of color continue to remain stubbornly high.”  This emphasis manages to imply that the real challenge isn’t a broken educational system, but institutional racism, and to lead white parents to think the state’s problems belong to other people, but it disguises the more disturbing conclusion.

Combining 4th and 8th grade scores on reading and math, black students in Rhode Island are actually slightly outperforming their peers in the average state.  Hispanic students in Rhode Island do worse than in the average state, but they track closely with black students, which is more typical in our region.

The big drop in Rhode Island is actually among white students, who are the majority.  Managing to keep Rhode Island’s minority students relatively flat has actually helped keep up our scores.  To the extent that Rhode Island has addressed its “achievement gap,” it has been by failing white students even more.

As I wrote in 2015, the data is strongly suggestive of a change during the governorship of Democrat Lincoln Chafee that looks like a ceiling on Rhode Island’s progress in reforming education.  If anything, we can now see that the trends have worsened, rather than improving, under his successor, and the spin should no longer be tolerated.


A Side Benefit of Giving Away Retirement Bonuses

Katherine Gregg notes, in a Providence Journal article, an interesting side effect of Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s plan to pay off long-time state employees to retire.  Gregg notes that the administration is assuming that 426 state workers will retire under the program, receiving $8.94 million in “retirement-incentive payments” and another $4.57 million in pay for unused time off from their years of employment.

[The plan] will also, coincidentally, turn state government into a hiring factory in the six months leading up to the 2018 elections.

So, heading into a statewide election for legislators and the governor, 426 union members will be happily flush with cash and another estimated 252 will have received seats on the state payroll gravy train.  That’s a nice little bonus effect of retirement incentives.

Of course, we shouldn’t accept the governor’s estimates.  Pushing employees into an underfunded pension plan may result in some near-term savings, but in the long term, it’s a terrible idea.  Taxpayer dollars go toward these pensions, and with people living longer and longer and government employees’ pay on ratcheting scales, we’ll only end up paying multiple people at a time for each job.

These sorts of buyouts are a bad idea when the idea is just to save money, and the impulse exposes a much more problematic fact of government.  Think about it:  If these employees are so far from worth what they’re being paid that we’ll give them bonuses up to $40,000 to get rid of them, why are we paying them so much in the first place?  If that’s not an indication that we need huge, systematic reform, then nothing is.

That point highlights the only time that buyouts might be reasonable in principle, which is when doing so is part of a system-wide fix.  But nothing is being fixed, in this case.  The governor’s just looking for a short-term budget trick that comes with some political benefit.


We Had the Logic, Now We Have an Example, Too

Rhode Islanders, especially, should heed the admonition of The American Interest that Puerto Rico may be a final warning lesson to states within the United States:

This [bankruptcy] could have been avoided by sensible and timely cuts, by turning a deaf ear to public sector union demands for wages and salaries, by a series of small but definite steps away from the blue model, welfare state governance. But the press, certainly including the NYT which is now reporting the disaster, would have attacked any politicians taking these steps as “harsh”, or “cruel to the poor”.

Now Puerto Rico is in a deeper hole, with much more suffering than any of the moderate cuts would have imposed.

Just look at the false rhetoric permeating the debate over some overly mild reforms to the disastrous ObamaCare entitlement system for a timely illustration.  Any restraint on government programs is declared to be a “draconian cut” that will hurt or kill people, marking politicians who support reforms as evil.  This will not end well, but just like junkies, supporters of big government just want that one more fix, and let tomorrow take care of itself, somehow.


Marching Right Back to Crisis with the Pension Fund

Who could have guessed that Rhode Island’s pension fund would prove not to be fixed as promised after the much-applauded pension reform pushed by Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo when she was the state treasurer?  From today’s Providence Journal:

The Rhode Island state pension fund lost $466 million over the past fiscal year, declining from $7.96 billion in assets to $7.50 billion, or 5.9 percent.

It was the second consecutive year that the fund lost money because the payout of benefits exceeded the return on investments and contributions from taxpayers and employees, according to David Ortiz, director of communications for Rhode Island Gen. Treasurer Seth Magaziner.

The market value of investments in the fund for state employees, public school teachers and some municipal employees also fell, by $26 million, or 0.27 percent, in the fiscal year ended June 30.

A point that Gregory Smith doesn’t make in his article, but that is absolutely critical, is that the pension fund is financed with an expectation of a 7.5% return on investment every year.  That means a $26 million loss, versus breaking even, is really nearly a $500 million loss versus where the investment needed to be.  The article goes on to note that other states’ pension funds made small returns, below 2%, but even that isn’t good enough.  Even that should be seen as a loss.

This is why I’ve been attempting to learn the total benefits that the state has already committed to funding, without adjustment to put it into today’s dollars — that is, without reducing it by the estimated investment return.  The state pension agency (the Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island, or ERSRI) and treasurer refused to give me that number, saying the actuary (a private contractor) doesn’t even do that calculation, even though it should be a very simple calculation to do.  Last week, the attorney general’s office backed the pension agency up, although the lawyer is revisiting the decision because he somehow missed a letter I’d submitted that directly refutes the agency’s reasoning and, therefore, his.

I’ve also now requested all of the numbers that the actuary does calculate, and I will simply add them together to get the total.  ERSRI, however, has refused that request, too, insisting that the only way a member of the public can get the number would be to take the raw data and essentially repeat all of the actuary’s work.  This one I may pursue all the way into the court system, because it’s a matter of basic transparency and the rule of law, because the public records statute very clearly requires release of this information.

It’s also critical to the state’s finances.  If our pension fund cannot even achieve positive returns, let alone returns anywhere near the estimated rate, the taxpayers and voters have a right to know how much money we’re talking about.  The reason elected and appointed officials wouldn’t want us to have that information is obvious.


Testing and Accountability in Public School

Linda Borg’s article in today’s Providence Journal gives a small taste of an argument that would be much more prominent if Rhode Islanders really cared about education as much as we say that we do.  At issue is Education Commissioner Ken Wagner’s decision to end standardized testing at the high-school level.  Tim Duffy, of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, gets it right:

“If you aspire to be Massachusetts, then high school graduation requirements are going to have to have some consequences,” he said. “If there are no consequences for students, teachers or the system, we end up with improved graduation rates but we haven’t measured whether they are living up to the standards.”

One superintendent adds to that:

Chariho School Supt. Barry Ricci applauds any reduction in testing, but he doesn’t want the state to abandon tying a standardized test to graduation. Without that incentive, he said, high school students will not have any reason to take the test seriously. “I don’t want to give kids the message that we’re lowering the bar,” Ricci said.

In a word, what Wagner has diluted is accountability.  There has to be some way to hold not just students, but teachers and our entire public education system accountable.  What has happened (as I keep repeating) is that Rhode Island’s “fix the system” approach to education reform hit a political ceiling.  The adult special interests that infect our education system feared the prospect of having their failures laid bare in undeniable fashion, so they used our political system as a defensive weapon.  The repercussions of that explosion are reflected in standardized scores, with disadvantaged students (predictably) suffering the most harm.

I happen to agree with those who express concerns about high-stakes testing, but the public needs some means of measuring performance and imposing accountability.  Our children would be much better off, though, and our education system tremendously improved, if accountability derived from market mechanisms.  Let Rhode Islanders determine their own priorities for themselves and their own children and send students to the schools — public, charter, private, home — that best reflect those priorities.  Schools that cannot maintain viable student populations will have to improve or go out of business.

That scares our state’s politicians and insiders because no political ceiling would be possible once Rhode Island families got a taste of real reform.


Legislative Grants: When’s Enough Enough?

Come on, Rhode Island. Isn’t this signal enough?

More than half of Rhode Island’s 113 lawmakers responded to a Journal survey last week, including 44 of 75 House members, and 19 of 38 senators. Of those who responded with more than an automatic reply, 15 acknowledged some link to an organization — such as a Little League team — that received a grant.

To go where Katherine Gregg couldn’t with that Providence Journal article, of the 63 legislators in the General Assembly who were willing to respond to her inquiry, 15 (or 24%) were also willing to admit something that looks to many of us like corruption, straight up.  Of the 50 legislators who did not respond, we can only guess, but it would be reasonable to assume that their percentage is somewhat worse.  Then there’s the reality that something makes legislators pick these non-profits.  Keep digging, and I bet the number of connections climbs close to 100%.

This isn’t a close call; these things need to go.

Earlier today, someone of generally like mind expressed frustration about everything that goes on in our town, state, and nation that just shouldn’t.  After years of thinking about this stuff, I find myself returning to the conclusion that our system of government has been hopelessly compromised, that the solution ultimately lies with us, but that those who’ve compromised the system have also worked to make it nearly impossible to fix.

Just look at these grants.  How could legislators not know this is completely inappropriate, to the point that even those who strive to be ethical might not see it?  Well, for one thing, nobody’s called them on it.  It took the fall of Ray Gallison to open up a channel to start getting information about the corruption out to the public.  That’s on us, for failing to create an environment for consumer news that would support such investigations.

We’re already seeing those who work for good government fall into the same ol’ trap over this latest controversy — hoping for government officials to come up with some sort of solution to problems that those same government officials created.  But again: It’s on us.  We have to investigate and support those who do.  We have to run for office.  We have to vote.  The remedy for government excess isn’t more authority for government or more clever initiatives (like campaign finance reform) that corrupt politicians can manipulate to their advantage.  The remedy is for the people to shake up the ant farm.

The obvious solution to the legislative grant problem within government is to end the legislative grant program.  But that’s not going to happen, so it falls back to us to ramp up the amount of attention that we pay and the amount of effort that we put into changing things.  Unfortunately, that requires some people to make a whole lot of effort, and the problem with being against government corruption is that it’s much harder to answer the question, “What’s in it for me?”


RI Elite Approaches Jobs and Education from the Wrong Angle

I agree with the Providence Journal editorial board that:

Rhode Island needs a dramatic, game-changing, long-term plan to raise the bar in its public schools if the state is going to be in a position to supply the talent that 21st century businesses are looking for.

I’d say that means full school choice through education savings accounts (ESAs), while the editors likely mean another attempt at “fix the system” reforms, which have proven to be mildly effective and to have a political ceiling.  But let’s put that difference of opinion aside for a more relevant, and probably deeper, one.  The editorial is most useful in the direct way in which it approaches the idea of economic development from exactly the wrong angle:

There was a time when businesses chose locations for their proximity to raw materials such as lumber or copper. But “today, people are the natural resources,” Meredith Amdur, an analytics expert at the advisory firm CEB, told the newspaper. Indeed, finding the right labor pool can be the most important factor in choosing a location. Not surprisingly, regions “with fewer degree holders could struggle to attract big corporations,” the report warned.

The Projo’s approach is one in which human beings are a stationary resource akin to the natural qualities of an area and, worse, one in which it is appropriate for state government to use public schools and other programs to reshape the population to fit the interests of corporate executives.

As is usually the case, inaccurate and immoral conceptualization leads to practical difficulties.  To wit, even if we train young Rhode Islanders to fit the bill of the aforesaid executives,  employees remain more mobile than companies, especially young employees.  For the company to move, the cost of moving to or starting up in Rhode Island would have to be less than the premium necessary to draw an expert Rhode Island workforce away.

And that’s assuming technology doesn’t shift ever so slightly in a way that makes all of that taxpayer-funded technical instruction obsolete.  In other words, the assumption must be that the state’s public education system can be nimble enough and the state’s leaders sufficiently prognosticative to predict the future of the marketplace.

The basic problem is that Rhode Island’s elite, which includes the Providence Journal editorial board, doesn’t want to give up the heavy hand it has in determining what the state and its people should be like.  If we’d just lower the cost and difficulty of doing business here, and if we’d just give our neighbors maximum flexibility to make decisions for themselves, including in education, then businesses for which Rhode Island makes sense for other reasons will set up shop within our borders, and those of our neighbors attracted to those industries will rush for the opportunity.

Freedom and economic health go hand in hand, and the opposing option is aristocracy and stagnation.  One can only conclude that those who insist on aristocracy are actually just fine with the stagnation.


The Model of Redistributing Education Money

The American Interest highlights a model for education funding in Illinois that strikes a number of familiar chords for Rhode Island (via Instapundit):

A big part of blue state politics is the effort to equalize school spending across districts; rich Illinois suburbs can afford better schools than poor towns and cities, so they are asked to send extra money to Springfield to subsidize underfunded schools in Chicago. And it’s not just Illinois—state Democratic parties across the country are eager to subsidize schools in poor places with money raised in rich ones. (Incidentally, this may be one reason Democrats are struggling at the state level).

In the author’s opinion, this model might be just fine except for the fact that local interests on the subsidized side of the ledger want to keep control over their own affairs.  That is, they want to set their own priorities and budgets and tell the folks in wealthier communities how much money to send.

Things may operate a little differently in Rhode Island than Illinois, given our size.  The urban ring is a proportionally larger part of the state, so its representatives have an easier time running the state government for their own regional interests.  That simply makes matters worse, though.  In Rhode Island, all of government is an exercise in taking money from whoever has it in order to give it to whoever’s connected.

With fix-the-system reforms in the last decade, the administration of Republican Governor Donald Carcieri attempted at least to make districts accountable by implementing consequential statewide testing and some limited school choice through charters.  The insiders didn’t like the pressure, so they’re successfully pushing back.

Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s alternative approach of setting up about a half dozen in-district “empowerment schools” that must have strong insider buy-in and that won’t be up and running for a number of years is simply not going to be consequential.  So, children will continue to suffer the effects of poor education and the state will continue to suffer the loss of its productive class as people who want to live in a dynamic society continue to make the decision that it’s not worthwhile to remain in a place where government sees them as nothing more than a funding source.


As with Everything, Caution on Empowerment Schools

Rhode Islanders have a right to be skeptical about ideas coming out of their government, and the “empowerment schools” that Rhode Island’s new education commissioner is promoting are no different. At this point, the only reasonable advice would be not to buy into the idea until there are more details about how it would actually work:

“Why can’t we give the tools to districts that the charters have?” he said. “This would address the demand for the charter sector.”

In a speech before the Senate Committee on Education Thursday night, Wagner fleshed out his vision for public education, one that would give principals much more authority over budgets, hiring, even the school day, allow schools to innovate and give parents much more control over where their children attend school.

Rhode Island, Wagner said, has to look beyond the entrenched debate over the value of charter schools and give every school the opportunity to innovate, whether it’s offering dual language classes, an enhanced arts program or a longer school day. This does not mean that Rhode Island abandons testing or a shared set of high standards, however. It means that the state Department of Education would give “extreme freedom” from many state regulations, much like charter schools.

As I’ve been saying in a number of venues, lately, these fix-the-system education reforms walk the edge between absorbing reform efforts into the education blob and pulling the blob toward actual reforms, and whereas the rights of parents and local communities ought to be the things that help ensure balance, they tend to be considered as an afterthought. Giving principals more authority in their own schools, for example, is a great idea, but only if they still have some accountability to parents and only if it doesn’t erode local taxpayers’ ability to determine what (and how much) they’re willing to support.

Similarly, legislators need to thoroughly consider how empowerment schools will actually be populated. If an elementary school converts, for example, will it still be the local district school for students in that neighborhood, or will those families have to enter a charter-like lottery not only against other families in their city or town, but against students throughout the state? And either way, who decides which option to use? It’s all too easy to lose sight of the distinction between funding education for all students and funding a particular set of government-branded schools.

If anything can be declared definitively about this style of education reform, it’s that we don’t need another proposal constructed of general promises and packaged with buzzwords that leads to another 15 years of helping a handful of children while doing damage to education overall, as well as to representative democracy.


The Real Way to End Corruption in Rhode Island

Edward Fitzpatrick highlights an interesting flash of truth from former Governor Lincoln Chafee, who candidly stated something that everybody who pays attention already knows:

… Stanton zeroed in on the question of whether Rhode Island’s process for selecting state judges is transparent and accountable. And attention turned to Chafee’s appointment of former Senate President Joseph A. Montalbano as a Superior Court judge in 2013.

Chafee told Stanton he’d received heavy pressure from Senate leaders, who held up several of his initiatives after he bypassed Montalbano for previous judicial vacancies.

It’s a favor factory, over on that hill in Providence.  Governing the state on behalf of the people of Rhode Island comes a distant second to shuffling favors around for the benefit of insiders.  But if you want reason to believe that nothing will ever change, here, turn to the suggestion that Fitzpatrick and Common Cause RI Director John Marion offer:

So what can be done? Marion said it’s going to take public pressure on Governor Raimondo “to exercise her full authority to pick judges without the interference of Assembly leaders. With former Rep. Tim Williamson a finalist for a District Court vacancy, the governor has a choice — stand up for her power to make those appointments, or give in to the pressure to placate legislative leaders.”

If a great deal of targeted pressure is brought to bear, maybe the governor will make the tune skip the Williamson verse, but that doesn’t fix anything.  Frankly, it almost makes good-government activism another favor to shuffle.  If the governor doesn’t bow to the pressure, then folks like Fitzpatrick and Marion will, in effect, be promising to hold up other initiatives she might need their support to achieve.  To be clear: I am not saying that advocates for good government will therefore be just like corrupt legislators.  I’m saying that they will be working the system without changing its structure, and Rhode Island’s problems are systemic.

To fix this specific problem — and many more — what’s needed is a balanced political system in which competing interests have incentive not just to slip their own priorities into the mix, but to expose the corruption of others and to hold them accountable.  That means elections actually have to be contested.  It means it actually has to be possible for power to change hands in significant ways.  It means people in power have to fear the consequences if their corruption gives their opponents an edge in the fight for the reins.

Much must be done to achieve that end, but for starters, Fitzpatrick’s paper could get some ideological diversity in its news department and (therefore) reporting, and Marion’s organization could stop supporting campaign reforms that serve to regulate outsiders off the playing field.


NAEP Drop Shows Disservice to Rhode Island Students

I’ll be taking a closer look at the just-released scores from the national standardized NAEP tests later today, but initial reports suggest that Rhode Island slipped.  Linda Borg’s Providence Journal story focuses on whether the switch to Common Core standards accounts for the dip, and that might be part of the story nationally.  However, Rhode Island’s story is more detailed.  I’ll pivot off the closing comment from Rhode Island’s new education commissioner, Ken Wagner:

“The answers are around us,” Wagner said. “We need to invest in our students, our teachers and in our economy. This isn’t about coming up with something new. We need to be focused on having the will to persist in what we know works.”

Wagner’s new, so it’s possible he’s not familiar with the history, but in the years that Rhode Island was actually pursuing education reform, our test scores, both NAEP and NECAP were on the rise, catching and surpassing the national average (in the case of NAEP).  Then those “fix-the-system” reforms hit a political ceiling, with Governor Lincoln Chafee putting the brakes on the reform vehicle and the General Assembly beginning to dismantle it.

The most reasonable interpretation of recent history in Rhode Island is that the education establishment isn’t really interested in figuring out what works and “persisting” in it.  Politicians and labor unions want to persist in what benefits them, and improving the lives of Rhode Island’s children is only permitted to the extent that it doesn’t disrupt that primary objective.


Funding Formulas and Political Rhetoric

As I’ve written before, public school districts have a point when they complain that charter schools drain their resources to build a parallel second school system.  As for Rhode Island’s education funding formula, it obviously makes some assumptions and throws some numbers at the wall, but at least it’s a formula, not an arbitrary annual decision.

But I do wish we could have more-straightforward, factual discussions of such topics in this state.  Here’s Governor Gina Raimondo in the Providence Journal:

Rhode Island’s existing formula allocates aid to public schools based on student enrollment, the level of student poverty and the wealth of the community.

“It is an excellent funding formula,” Raimondo said. “But it’s been around for five years. It needs to be tweaked.”

Rhode Island, Raimondo said, spends a billion dollars a year on public education.

But, she asked, “Are we getting the most out of our money? Rhode Island is seventh in the nation in terms of per pupil spending, but we’re seeing average [academic] results. What troubles me is we have the greatest achievement gap [between low-income and higher-income students] in the country.”

Shouldn’t it at least be acknowledged that the state is five years into a 10-year phase-in of the formula?  The details of the funding formula have been around for five years, but it’s still five years away from actually being fully implemented.  (And honestly, what person over 35 years old still believes that five years is a long time in public policy?)

Let’s not pretend that we need some shiny new fixes to an antiquated formula; that’s merely an invitation to mischief.  The charter school piece — or, ahem, school choice education savings accounts — is more of an add-on than a core component of the formula, of itself.

Most important, though, is the plain and simple fact that we can “tweak” the funding formula all we want and it won’t have an effect on academic results or the gap between the haves and have nots.  Money is not the issue in Rhode Island’s education system, and it serves Rhode Island’s vulnerable communities poorly, indeed, not even to be raise that fact as a possibility.

As you can see by playing with the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s interactive tool for comparing results on the national standardized NAEP tests, Rhode Island had actually closed the gap with national results when it comes to lower-income students … until after the 2011 tests.  Those reversed trends align conspicuously with the brakes that Governor Lincoln Chafee and the General Assembly applied to the reforms initiated by former Commissioner Deborah Gist under former Governor Donald Carcieri and may indicate that there’s a political ceiling on education reform that tries to work within the system, rather than shake it up.

Education is too important to add to the pile of things that Rhode Island is getting absolutely wrong during the Chafee-Fox and Raimondo-Mattiello years.


Dammed Teacher Union Pay Scale Prevents Realistic Variations

Yesterday, I suggested that a government program subsidizing early-childhood education degrees for childcare providers — “giving them a chance to teach in a public school and earn more money” — was an example of backwards government thinking that ignores market forces.  As if to follow up on that suggestion, Linda Borg has an article, in today’s Providence Journal, that proves and reinforces my point:

Locally, superintendents say they are flooded with applications for elementary education openings but struggle to fill vacancies in secondary math and science, especially in physics. Many school districts have now expanded their search to include international candidates. …

In Rhode Island and elsewhere, the teaching profession can’t compete with the salaries offered to math and science majors in the private sector.

Borg goes on to lay blame on increasing attempts to make public school teachers accountable for their work and the minor reductions in pension benefits, leading teachers to “postpone retirement.”  There may be some truth to the first point, although education needs some system of accountability, and absent real school choice that would create accountability through competition, the public is right to insist on objective metrics.  As for pension reforms, I’m not persuaded; indeed, the two points strike me as contradictory: If teaching is a less attractive profession, then teachers should be more inclined to retire earlier.

The real problem, here, is obvious.  The old-fashioned factory pay scale prevents public schools from dealing with market realities.  School districts are paying way above what elementary school teachers would demand if everybody were free to work for as much as they needed to earn, and they’re prevented from paying enough to attract teachers in subjects that require expertise in areas that are, themselves, more in demand.  (That’s a good indication, by the way, that those areas are particularly important to teach well.)

Some districts have agreements with their unions that allow bonuses and such for difficult-to-fill positions, but clearly, that’s insufficient, and in any event, they run up against budget constraints, because they can’t reduce other pay commensurately.

Like many other intractable problems in public policy, this should be easy to fix.  Back off the government and union restrictions, and implement school choice policies.  With freedom, competition, and more-flexible forms of accountability, everybody will find their level, and teachers, students, and taxpayers will all benefit.

Unfortunately, labor unions and politicians have built a giant dam that prevents the reasonable flow of money, talent, and customers.  Yeah, they get to siphon off money and power, but everybody else suffers.


Press Conference & Request By Concerned Citizen, Bill Murphy, to Testify about Unfairness of Pension Settlement

[The following was received via e-mail this afternoon.]

Concerned Citizen Seeks to Testify about Unfairness of Pension Settlement to Taxpayers at Court Hearing Tuesday, Schedules Press Conference to Explain Request to the Public

Concerned citizen Dr. William J. Murphy will hold a press conference in front of the Frank Licht Judicial Complex at 250 Benefit Street in Providence at 4:30 PM on Tuesday, May 26, 2015 to explain to the public the reasons for his request to testify about the unfairness of the pension settlement to taxpayers at the ongoing fairness hearings in Superior Court. Dr. Murphy will deliver a statement emphasizing that the terms of the settlement itself as well as the impropriety of the court-supervised secret negotiation process that produced it have significantly harmed the financial welfare of taxpayers, violated the political rights of citizens, and severely damaged the public interest.

(EAST PROVIDENCE, RI – May 25, 2015) – Dr. William J. Murphy, a concerned resident of East Providence, has petitioned the Rhode Island Superior Court to testify at the ongoing pension settlement fairness hearing Tuesday. He held a press conference at Superior Court in Providence on Tuesday to issue a statement explaining the reasons for his request.

Dr. Murphy opened his remarks by saying that, “The pension settlement is grossly unfair to good citizens of Rhode Island because it adds over $290 million to the unfunded pension debt that the state’s already overburdened taxpayers cannot afford. Even more troubling, the terms of the settlement itself as well as everything about the nature of the process itself fail to demonstrate appropriate sensitivity to the economic hardships this increased tax burden would impose on elderly citizens living on fixed incomes as well as low-income younger taxpayers and their families who remain deprived of adequate economic opportunities in part because of the unaffordable state pension system, the high rates of taxation imposed to feed it, and the resulting negative consequences for the Ocean State’s economic competitiveness.


Rhode Island and New Hampshire Education Trends

According to his bio line, Ron Wolk is an advocate for “performance-based assessment” in schools, so his argument in a recent Providence Journal op-ed should be considered with that in mind.  That’s a minor qualifier, though, inasmuch as one expects people typically to advocate for things they believe in.

It’s just something to keep in mind while considering his comparison of education trends in Rhode Island and New Hampshire.  The two states, he suggests, began moving toward reforms at around the same time, and with much the same plan, but then:

As the years passed, Rhode Island marched in place for a while and then retreated when most schools continued with business as usual. The commitment to multiple measures was never fully accepted, and state officials steadily increased the 10 percent limit on New England Common Assessment Program scores until a “passing score” was deemed necessary for a student to graduate. Today, the state remains mired in a system where time is the constant and learning is the variable, and where the “learning” is largely “delivered” through classroom instruction. 

Meanwhile, New Hampshire has stuck with its vision, working at ground level with principals, teachers, parents and students to make CBE successful. Much work remains to be done, but progress is steady. More students are earning credit for supervised internships and projects in communities. Research shows significant declines in dropouts, school failures and disciplinary problems. Student engagement and learning have increased. Students say their work is more challenging and their interactions with teachers are more rewarding.

It’s a distortion to say that a “passing score” became obligatory in Rhode Island, rather than just a mild improvement of a non-passing score, which is the truth.  But putting that aside, is his characterization of the states’ trends accurate?

Looking at the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s online application to compare states’ results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, I’d argue that the answer is, “no.”  If you scroll down the application and compare the two states by multiple measures, a few trends emerge:

  • New Hampshire started the millennium considerably higher than Rhode Island.
  • New Hampshire is considerably less diverse (as evidenced by the fact that the “all students” category tracks so closely with the “white students” group.
  • Looking at just white students, for a more direct comparison, and averaging grades (four and eight) and test subjects (math and reading) Rhode Island moved from a 5.5-point deficit in 2003 to a 1.75-point deficit in 2013.

The most important observation, though, is that the overall impression of the trends is actually, as I’ve written before, a more-rapid improvement in Rhode Island than elsewhere… up until the point that Governor Chafee’s administration put a stop to the reforms that Wolk laments.

“Performance-based assessment” may prove, in the long run, to be an excellent principle by which to organize education, and the specific approach that Wolk appears to advocate may prove workable, but I don’t think this particular comparison is the evidence that he thinks it is.


Coming up in Committee: Forty-One Sets of Bills Being Heard by the RI General Assembly, June 3 – June 5

1. S2898: $39M of “state investment” into the Superman building, in the form of a $19,500,000 “direct allocation to the owner” in the second year of the program, “and then payments of $9,750,000 in each of the following fiscal years”, with the condition that “following the funding of the fourth and final payment, upon a capital event resulting from the sale or refinancing of the project, any amount paid to the owner under this program above thirty percent (30%) of QREs shall be repaid to the state of Rhode Island prior to the owner realizing any return over the actual amounts invested in the project”. (S Finance; Tue, Jun 3)

2. S2950: Mandates that the RI Board of Education adopt “a competency-based/proficiency-based learning policy and a model district policy designed to increase programmatic opportunities for students to earn credits through demonstrations of competency”. (S Education; Wed, Jun 4)

3. H7939: Provides for information related to mental-health related involuntarily commitments to be added to the National Instant Criminal Background Check (NICS) database used for conducting firearms purchase background checks. The records sent to database will be from cases where there has been a demonstration of “clear and convincing evidence that the subject of the hearing is in need of care and treatment in a facility, and…continued unsupervised presence in the community would, by reason of mental disability, create a likelihood of serious harm”. (H Judiciary; Tue, Jun 3)

4. S2801: New insurance requirements for “mental health and substance use disorders”, including a requirement that they be covered “under the same terms and conditions as…provided for other illnesses and diseases” and a ban on annual or lifetime limits on their coverage. (H Corporations; Tue, Jun 3)

5. S2009: Prohibits funds from the restricted-receipt account used to pay legal costs for the state retirement system from being used to pay for litigation not directly based on a state retirement board decision. (S Finance; Tue, Jun 3)

6A. S2379: Legalizes certain uses of marijuana beginning with “actually and constructively using, obtaining, purchasing, transporting, or possessing one ounce (1 oz.) or less of marijuana, not including hashish” and “actually and constructively using, obtaining, purchasing, transporting, or possessing marijuana products, including up to five (5) grams or less of hashish, sixteen (16) ounces of marijuana-infused product in solid form and seventy-two (72) ounces of marijuana-infused product in liquid form”…