Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee makes several points with which I agree in his op-ed, today, in the Providence Journal, but Rhode Islanders should keep two things in mind if the truly want an education system that helps turn Rhode Island around.
First, McKee’s core prescription is that Rhode Islanders should change their state constitution to “guarantee every Rhode Island student a right to a high-quality public education.” It’s the sort of proposal that sounds good while giving the impression that it won’t actually change anything. Who could argue against such a thing, stated broadly and with no details? We need to know what the proposal actually means, though, especially when the state constitution already requires the General Assembly (i.e., the state government) “to adopt all means which it may deem necessary and proper to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.”
If some provision of state law and budgeting is standing in the way of adequate public schools (collective bargaining for teachers, say), one could argue that the General Assembly was not authorized by the constitution to implement that law or, alternately, that the General Assembly is obligated to change the law. An amendment such as McKee advocates might bring this right to a more individual level that would grant Rhode Islanders standing to sue the state, but in the State of Rhode Island as it currently exists, what might be the outcome of such lawsuits?
I suspect we’d see demands for more spending. That’s the one thing on which every powerful force in the education establishment can agree.
From there, the second point responds to McKee’s assertion that “if our public schools performed as well as those in Massachusetts, earning power in Rhode Island would jump by $1.5 billion to $2.1 billion annually.” To the extent that greater education increases each person’s earning potential, Rhode Island would likely find its students increasingly likely to leave the state. Investing in education doesn’t do much good for the economy if the state’s policies prevent Rhode Islanders from realizing their potential as entrepreneurs or even just as workers.
And if the end result of a right to “a high-quality public education” is to drain more resources out of the economy to fund the beat of Rhode Island’s ruling class, then even if the net result turns out to be better educated people, they’ll have even less opportunity in the state when graduating. Then, just as Connecticut is losing GE, we’ll lose even more of our children.