Almost There on Education Reform?


The most recent Newsmakers program with Democrat Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza showed an interesting side of the mayor.  As one would expect, bulk of the interview addressed the situation in Providence schools.

What was striking about the discussion was the mismatch between the mayor’s analysis and his actions.  He’s looking for “transformational change,” and he knows the teachers contract is central to the problem.  He insists that reform can’t “nip at the edges,” but also that “you just can’t do transformational change through negotiations.”  That is especially true, he says, because state law tilts things so much in the favor of the labor unions.

He’s looked into the experience of state-takeovers around the country and has discovered that the beneficial effects rarely take hold for long.  Yet, he still supports the concept of state takeover in Rhode Island, largely because he foresees an opportunity to change the contract.

With all of this in mind, the mayor shouldn’t have had to wait for the Johns Hopkins report.  He should have had that information in-hand and in front of the General Assembly over the past six months, asking for changes to the laws with which he has a problem.

Other topics raised during the interview had a similar theme:  the problems are at the state level.  One needn’t agree entirely with that statement to suggest that somebody who does would be taking a very different approach than the mayor.  We would be seeing, for example, media campaigns and pressure being put publicly on specific politicians.

This observation carries over into the proposed solutions.  Knowing, as Elorza does, that state interventions don’t tend to translate into long-term improvement, he should understand that it isn’t just policies that have to change.  Sure, a longer school day might help, and a streamlined method of getting rid of underperforming teachers certainly would, but unless the foundational incentives of the workplace change, the system will backslide as soon as the public spotlight moves away.  One could make the case that short-term improvements  in these situations aren’t even a result of the actual policy changes as much as the incentive that everybody has for to perform for a short time in order to avoid more painful reforms.

That is why modifying the competitive environment in which schools operate would surely be a more-effective reform than anything done within the schools themselves.  The system needs the incentives that come with accountability and competition.

Massachusetts attempted to answer that need with the risk that schools would actually be closed and reconstituted.  However, that only kicks in when circumstances get truly terrible, and evidence of the past few years suggests the Bay State may be coming to the end of its run at the front of the national class.  More-conservative states have leaned toward school choice, whether implemented broadly or as the consequence for districts when schools underperform.

Whether reforms that strong would have a chance in Rhode Island is not a question that evokes optimism.  But those are the sorts of questions that we would be seeing influential people ask if they were serious about fixing the problem.

  • bagida’wewinini

    With all of this in mind, the mayor shouldn’t have had to wait for the Johnson & Wales report.

    Justin Katz is the research director of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. One would expect that at the very least that a paid researcher would get the basic facts right. What confidence can the average reader have for his work when he makes a glaring error as is in evidence in his sentence above. The report to which he refers, is not from the Providence based school of hospitality, but from researchers from Johns Hopkins University. Big difference

    • Justin Katz

      People make mistakes, especially when they write a lot an in a quick format like blogging. Thank you for bringing this mental lapse to my attention.

      • bagida’wewinini

        Absolutely. I understand that people make mistakes. Mistakes in the work I do now have adverse consequences such as loss in profit or more seriously possible personal injury. But they happen nonetheless. Your boss is forgiving it would seem.

  • Joe Smith

    Jason – would you define “more conservative” – the list of 29 school choice states as put out by EdChoice and NCEA (National Catholic education group – that supports school choice, but, ahem, not charters) hardly reads as only “more conservative”.

    and in that light, also what you mean by “modifying the competitive environment” – does that include charters? If so, for profit or not for profit? The results are very mixed (at best) and what you mean and what you measure regarding ‘effective” can tell different stories.

    As for Elorza, I would add “and get more state money so he can keep supplanting to cover his municipal issues” to “opportunity to change the contract.”

    I would think though the the GOP should be loving this initiative – after all, it’s going to force a legal challenge (one would think) to the union contract. If say bumping and seniority can be challenged as an obstacle to educational effectiveness, then why wouldn’t those changes apply to all districts if results improve? It would be hard to argue it “worked” in Providence but we shouldn’t use it in Pawtucket?

  • Joe Smith

    I find it fascinating you mention competition and choice, yet Catholic school education enrollment has been steadily declining, with one might argue only a resurgence to due “corporate” welfare from the public via vouchers.

    “For schools that were financially strapped — and, with Catholic school enrollment plunging in recent years, there are many of those — vouchers have been a lifeline, not just in Indiana but also in Milwaukee, home to the nation’s oldest voucher program.”

    In a recent study of Milwaukee’s program, researchers found “vouchers are now a dominant source of funding for many churches

    If the schools were outperforming, why was their market share declining?

    Interesting study released last year – actually suggests tinkering at the margin in public schools would help, but ultimately raises the question of whether the tinkering should be done in the schools or in the communities themselves…after all, if you are going to look at it like a market, why only focus on the outcomes when the “market” is in service roughly 20% of the time and the other 80% of the time “outside the market” yet also influences the inputs are ignored? But raising those questions makes you open to claims of all sorts of nasty “ism” or “ist” attributes. and the interview comments by the study’s lead author

    We look at these kids when we assess them in ninth grade, and if you just simply look at private school versus public school — don’t consider any other factor in the kids’ history — you see huge benefits to being in private school. They’re about a standard deviation of like 15 points higher on test scores, they’re more motivated and the like. And then as soon as you put into the equation that you’re using to predict, as soon as you put in family income, those differences disappear — and they never reappear again, no matter how many other variables that you put in.

    If you want to predict children’s outcomes — achievement test scores, the things we care about socially — in high school, the best thing that you can use to predict that is going to be family income. Regardless of what high school you go to, the best predictor is going to be family background. And in this case, it’s family background before the child even goes to school in kindergarten.

    • Rhett Hardwick

      I am wondering if the sex abuse scandal isn’t effecting catholic school enrollment. It would make me think. I would think that family income would be an excellent predictor of outcome. But, does it hold true for Asian students?

      • Joe Smith

        Yes, according to that study. If you want to get into the weeds, check out Asian students MCAS scores vs. Asian students RICAS scores – the difference appears to be in the nationality difference.

        Asian students in MA knock the MCAS out of the park – so it’s a bit ironic when you compare a “like district’ in RI vs. MA and don’t account for the racial differences because “Asian” students in RI don’t. Apparently the difference is the RI “Asian” community is much higher SE Asian (and poorer) and those students don’t perform like the other Northern Asian heritage students (see my point it becomes a touchy subject to delve into the data!)

        So, to answer your question, “Yes” if you also incorporate family income and dis-aggregate within “Asian”.

        See comment on “All Students Count” Act in RI (a very underreported story) from 2017 – “Disaggregated data from the American Community Survey reveal that Cambodian and Hmong communities faces far higher poverty levels and lower rates of education attainment when compared to the Asian population and the total population in Rhode Island.”

        What’s interesting is at least the anecdotal coverage was the Chinese/Japanese community was against this in RI – seemingly for the point made above.

        • Rhett Hardwick

          Purely anecdotal, but in reading the Boston Globe, it appears that a Cambodian has been the outstanding student for years and years. As a kid, I spent a few years in a town with a high number of Portuguese immigrants, many planned to return to Portugal (an American tradition, except for Irish and Germans, most European immigrants returned home) In any case many were not encouraged to study and advised to quit at age 16. Many did, many did not.

      • Joe Smith

        On the catholic schools, I would think – maybe reflecting the general decline in catholic population in general?

        What may also be in play is the growth in the share of catholics by Hispanics, which on aggregate would have less household income than whites. Private school enrollment trends seem to indicate downward trend is correlated with the income stratification (higher income enrollment rates proportional but middle income down as the “range” decreased to reflect greater income inequality).

        • Rhett Hardwick

          Not sure about decline in Catholics, I understand Notre Dame has been heavily Jewish for generations. The Association of Episcopalian Private Schools (I forget the exact name, many of the “Elite” prep schools) notes an increase in relative income among families of students.

    • Justin Katz

      The answer to your question will vary in specific areas, but a very significant part of the answer when it comes to declining Catholic school enrollment is charter schools. When I looked at the question a few years ago, it was conspicuous that families seeking to escape their district schools would first put in for charter acceptance before turning to a school for which they’d have to pay. That’s why I’ve long characterized charter schools as the government’s entry into the private school market.

      Of course, then you have to add in other things, like the market rate for teachers, which is driven up by government unions. That, along with government regulations and declining access to low-cost faculty from religious orders, pushes up tuition.

      • Joe Smith

        Justin – not sure when you say “looked into it” what methodology you used. According to RIDE data on catholic enrollment of in state residents at RI catholic schools:

        Fall 2009 – 13,346; split 55% in MS/HS and 45% in elementary (not surprising I think in some parents may like the “local” elementary school but not the “central” high school.

        PVD share – 11%; Pawtucket – 8%; Woonsocket 3%

        Fall 2018 – 7016 (almost 50% decline); PVD share – 14% (makes sense by “market” theory – PVD schools are bad and the flight was in white, non-FRL families).

        However, the split had changed to MS/HS 61%; ES 39%

        Looking at the declines, you see the suburban areas falling more, especially in the ES level so I don’t think you can just blame charters because

        (1) the enrollment in charters is nowhere near the offsetting decline in catholic schools

        (2) the loss proportionately is more in the rural/suburban areas that really don’t have many charters (although arguably the lily white upper/middle class charters that were set up in South County probably fit your narrative though but they have been around for 15 years)

        (3) the declines started happening well before charters really got more steam

        What’s difficult is RIDE inflates the stats. RIDE will put out there were 17000 charter applications; however, because they don’t take out duplicate apps (same child applied at multiple schools) the real number of unique households and students is about half (I believe one time RIDE erred and actually released the extra data points).

        The data suggest though that white flight from Providence and other urban towns (Woonsocket and Warwick proportional share at catholic schools is up too) helps both charter and private schools, but arguably some of those that ended up in charters might have gone to private schools. However, catholic schools have lost steam with their suburban families, maybe just reflecting a fall in catholic participation by white suburban households and the problem when a catholic school closes that families may travel for HS, but not so inclined for elementary schools so you get a tipping point going at the younger ages and charters added more momentum.

        • Justin Katz

          I’m not sure how you go from my “a very significant part of the answer” to saying I’m “just blam[ing] charters.”

          Nationally, the evidence suggests that when charters are available, they’ll be a first attempt for non-rich households. Digging down into our area specifically would bring in a whole series of factors. Charters, yes. Declining Catholicism, to some extent, especially if we include the reduced membership in religious orders to do the teaching, thus requiring higher expenditure for teachers. But also the down economy, which has taken away that disposable income. You also can’t look at private school declines without also looking at declines in all enrollment. In Newport, for example, the first decade of this century saw the public school district lose an entire high-school’s worth of enrollment. That went along with a 30% drop in the number of lower-middle-class joint tax returns in the state.

          • Joe Smith

            The drop in public school enrollment from 2010 to 2019 in RI was less than 1% (in fact, 0.05% so just about the same). The drop in catholic school enrollment was 47%, almost 6,000 since 2010.

            Newport enrollment in Fall 2010 was 2100 and 2156 in 2018 so an actual gain.

            Yes, the state public school saw a decline (157K to 144K) from 2001 to 2009, but since then has leveled (with some variances across districts). Catholic school enrollment continued to drop fairly consistently, especially in the suburbs where income levels should have stabilized at least in the last 4-6 years and suburbs is where catholic schools (except maybe the state wide High Schools but those are a different beast) should at least have kept proportional, especially since the charter school competition is less there.