An Unaskable What If in Providence Education


The story of Providence schools’ purchase of an inspirational book took an interesting turn as a second act.  Act 1 was, “We Can’t Teach Anything That Sounds Religious”; Act 2 brings, “What Are We Not Being Told About How the City Spent $187,000 on this Book?”  Naturally, the reporting (and Rhode Islanders’ long, painful experience with their government) lends itself to suspicion, but an innocent explanation is still possible for details like this:

[Vernon Brundage, Jr.] published “Shoot Your Shot” last year, but it’s unclear how many copies were sold before Gallo ordered 16,510 books. Maryland business filings show Brundage didn’t establish “Shoot Your Shot Globe Enterprises,” the company Providence paid for the books, until Aug. 15.

It could be that, in the way of modern life, somebody in Providence came across this book and proposed it for distribution.  The proposal might have gone around the bureaucracy a bit, gathering approvals, and then inquiry made to the self-publishing author.  Upon the order of 16,510, perhaps he realized the need (or opportunity) to set up a company to handle the transaction.

This kind of serendipity happens in the entrepreneurial universe.  The catch in this instance, however, is that the district’s purchasing process should at least have produced some negotiation for a better price.  And (of course) there’s the reflexive anti-religious sentiment in the district (from the first link above):

Gallo said she read “Shoot Your Shot,” authored by Vernon Brundage Jr., prior to purchasing it, and the religious references didn’t alarm her. The breezy read uses stories from professional basketball stars to inspire readers to accomplish their goals.

She said the book is meant to teach “grit and perseverance,” but she now sees why some teachers were uncomfortable using it.

Despite all of the claims that we have to put the students first, here’s a question that I haven’t seen anybody even hint at asking:  What if a touch of religious faith is what Providence students really need?  The district would implicitly be making a religious statement if it were to declare that this could not be the case.

To be sure, a political philosophy could simultaneously hold that students need religion and that government schools cannot provide or even encourage it.  If that is our stance, however, then we have to question whether we should be expending so many resources on a system that can’t provide what is needed.

  • Joe Smith

    If that is our stance, however, then we have to question whether we should be expending so many resources on a system that can’t provide what is needed.

    Hmm…is this the same author who wrote:

    “We need government to back away from its meddling so that human nature and its incentives can work again”

    “The local school department and the state and federal government are not an “equal partner” with parents in raising our children”

    I happen to agree with your point that “What if a touch of religious faith is what Providence students really need?” However, the degree of religious formation for my children is my responsibility, working with my faith’s organizational resources, not their public school.

    I sent my kids to public schools as the local religious schools of my faith were less about religion and more about making parents happy the school was not “too religious” (and sports). I did need those public schools to reinforce values such as good citizenship, service, responsibility, etc. – but in a secular way that hopefully complements what my kids are getting at home and through our choice of religious practices.

    You seem incredibly disingenuous to say repeatedly the state – including public education – should be not be encroaching on responsibilities that more rightly belong to parents or a community outside the public sphere and then use this flimsy reason to make a point to subsidize parents’ private educational choice (which ultimately is the logical conclusion from your statement).

    If kids need religion, they should get it from home or their faith practices – they don’t need public dollars to subsidize *every need.”

    • Justin Katz

      Well, these are questions that can be addressed, but I’d start by insisting that there is no inconsistency between the statements of mine that you juxtapose. If part of the problem in Providence is that students need some religiosity, and if public schools can’t provide it (for a variety of reasons, including an objection to public indoctrination), then we can either utilize our education dollars to give families choices or just let people keep more of their money and make more of their own free choices.

      That is, if public dollars are going to education that can’t be accomplished, we can either reallocate those public dollars for the same purpose with different priorities or we can stop wasting the money.

      • Joe Smith

        If part of the problem in Providence is that students need some religiosity, and if public schools can’t provide it

        But that assumes Providence (and others) are being funded to provide it! Go back to your claims that public education and the public sector more broadly shouldn’t be in the business of supplanting *every* need a person has.

        If NO funds are going currently to help with the religious “need”, than what funds are you proposing to “reallocate”?

        If your point is an education *should* have a spiritual / religious component (while I agree I don’t think that’s a universal consensus compared to say math, reading, or critical thinking). then why again should the *public* fund that need when it is more rightly in the realm of parental responsibility? Kids should probably eat breakfast and dinner but is that the school’s responsibility when kids are not in school?

        Again, your argument seems hypocritical asking the public to subsidize something it is NOT (or not supposed to) providing already. If your argument is the nuance between religious specific values compared to a general non-religion specific set of values, then you’d need some metrics to show – assuming there is some agreed upon set of values – the public provision is not happening other than some anecdotal story the interim Supt of Providence felt some need without any research into what the objective (end) was, how this way would achieve it, how she would assess the means for the opportunity cost.

        • Justin Katz

          I think we’re talking past each other a bit, perhaps because I was insufficiently explicit about my point. The prior stipulation is that Providence students are not learning. If, given current realities, what the students need to help them learn is a dose of religiosity (even to the generalized extent of this book, which is more inspirational than doctrinal), then structuring education in a way that forbids that solution for most students is a mistake.

          In those conditions, it’s not only a travesty for the kids, but it’s a waste of resources, which should be redirected toward by (1) providing educational free or (2) at least giving families *something* that might actually help them (educational or otherwise) or (3) allowing them to keep more of their own money to use on what they think they need.