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Mike Stenhouse: Empowerment Schools Cannot Replace Charter Schools or School Choice

In today’s Providence Journal, R.I. Center for Freedom and Prosperity CEO Mike Stenhouse expresses concern about proposed “empowerment schools” and calls for an all of the above approach to education in Rhode Island.

Only an all-of-the-above approach can meet this demand. So, if the empowerment school program is added to the existing school choice menu, then it’s a positive step.

However, if empowerment schools are being positioned as alternative charter schools, it would actually dis-empower parents, reducing their options, and would be yet another deceptive ploy by our government to advance a hidden, special-interest agenda.

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New RIPEC Study Confirms More Money Does Not Equal Student Achievement

More to come from RIPEC on this subject. But with regard to dollars spent, the numbers do not lie. From today’s ProJo.

Although Rhode Island and Massachusetts spend about the same on public education per student, Bay State students continue to outperform those here, despite recent reforms in Rhode Island.

By one measure, Rhode Island teachers have the highest salaries in the country. But student achievement here is at best average.

It is now clear that while throwing money at education budgets may have helped lots of local officials around the state get in good with teachers unions (and contributed significantly to higher property taxes), it has not boosted student achievement.

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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.

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Empowering Schools to Stay in the Status Quo Fold

It looks like RI education commissioner Ken Wagner is getting another bite at the apple for public promotion of his “empowerment school” idea, which I addressed back in January.  Dan McGowan’s got a handy question-and-answer-style review, but Linda Borg’s promotional article  is notable for the refreshing honesty that it includes from Wagner:

“Quality charter schools make the whole system stronger,” Wagner said. “But we absolutely need a strategy to reduce the demand for charter schools. We must … strengthen our neighborhood schools so they can compete.”

In combination with new restrictions making their way through the pipeline — especially legislation that would give local governments more say in whether to accept new or expanded charters serving students from their towns — one could surmise that the effort is not so much to improve district schools to make them competitive in a growing landscape of actual school choice, but to reroute that demand back toward an in-district, more-union-friendly variation on charter schools.

I’ve argued, before, that taxpayers are absolutely justified in demanding more say when it comes to the big invoices that charter schools are permitted to send to them for payment and that charters have become a method of disrupting the private-school market.  That said, these “empowerment schools” have the feel of going in the wrong direction, particularly to the extent that teachers unions and other insiders get on board with the idea.

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What Would “Empowerment Schools” Really Empower?

I’m getting a bad feeling about this proposal by new state Education Commissioner Ken Wagner.

From budgeting to class schedules, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner on Wednesday unveiled a plan to give principals and teachers sweeping control over most of the major decisions made in their schools every day.

Participation by schools, including the ominous open enrollment aspect of the plan, would be completely voluntary (at this point). What is so concerning about the plan is that this comment appears to be the sole reference to the critical question of how “empowerment schools” would improve student achievement.

Wagner said principals and teachers should be given more flexibility because they’re the ones who know their students the best.

The question of how to improve student achievement has to be the focus of state education policy. But it seems to have been largely left out of the “empowerment school” proposal.

With regard to the critical matter of student achievement, why aren’t we pursuing what works rather than trying to reinvent the wheel? Student achievement rose during the tenure of former Education Commissioner Deborah Gist. We need to continue what she was doing before the General Assembly deplorably interfered by suspending the NECAP standardized test (“thoughtful pause” – snort) to appease their union masters.

Or if anything to do with the prior Education Commissioner is too upsetting for some people, the gold standard of education for years has been right next door in Massachusetts. As WPRO’s John Loughlin has said repeatedly, let’s simply emulate what they did to achieve this.

Refusal to take either of these paths means our elected officials are continuing to put special interests over the best interest of and highest education results for our children. Especially in the era of ratcheted back standardized testing, there is a real danger that “empowerment schools” will only empower a lack of education accountability and a corresponding lowering of student achievement when we need to do exactly the reverse.

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Johnston Councilwoman – and Dean of RWU – Taking Best of Both Possible Worlds

Well, this is a tad awkward. Investigative reporter Jim Hummel has rumbled Johnston Councilwoman Stephanie P. Manzi and her husband sending their children to (presumably) better schools in Narragansett on the residency basis of an 800 square foot cottage in that town while grabbing a homestead exemption for their house in Johnston.

Councilwoman Manzi told us the cottage – and not this 3,200-square-foot house in Johnston they’ve owned for more than a decade – is where the children live.

Hummel: “Full-time?’’
Manzi: “Full-time.’’
Hummel: “You’re sure about that?’’
Manzi: “Yes I am.’’

Yes, awkward, especially as Councilwoman Manzi is currently Dean of the Roger Williams University School of Justice Studies. Dr. Manzi is certainly practicing “real world practical application” of the resources of two different towns.

… one of the most valuable tools that we can provide our students with is the ability to link the theoretical knowledge in the classroom to its real-world practical application.

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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.

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Colleges Suffering for Their Campus Lunacy Remind of Rhode Island

Over the past… what?… six months, America has watched its campuses taking the next step in their descent toward madness.  One can’t help but get the sense that they may no longer be places where learning is the top priority, but rather that they have moved on even from indoctrination to the stage of training shock troops for ideological war.  We may now be beginning to see what happens when students who do not wish to invest so much in that sort of training (and their parents) look for institutions that won’t make them the background bit-players on which the apprentices of outrage can practice.

In Missouri, for example, enrollment is down at the state’s flagship campus, and Mizzou is facing an unexpected deficit of $32 million.  Locally, the Brown Daily Herald may be reporting hints of a similar reaction among non-donating alumni of Brown University:

Students at the call center who chose to remain anonymous cited multiple instances in which alums have chosen not to donate as a result of student activism in recent years.

The Herald article adds an interesting wrinkle that ought to raise doubts about the university’s — about universities’ — ability to respond to the feedback they’re getting from those outside of their towers:

Another staff member pointed out that though older alums may be worried about the direction Brown is moving in and refusing to donate, these may be the same alums who are upset that Brown started accepting students of color or became co-educational.

True to the progressive formula, which prevents substantive communication and reconsideration through its control of language and handbook of knee-jerk explanations, this staff member doesn’t seem to understand why people might be uncomfortable with scenes like this, this, and this,  with the complementary indications that real free speech has been driven underground in a way against which we’d all thought Dead Poets Society and decades of similar themes had provided immunization:

Another staff member pointed out that though older alums may be worried about the direction Brown is moving in and refusing to donate, these may be the same alums who are upset that Brown started accepting students of color or became co-educational.

No need to consider the outrageous behavior of social justice warriors on campus; those non-donating alums are probably just racist misogynists.

Rhode Islanders, especially, ought to pay attention to these developments, because the campuses are providing a miniature of our state’s experience.  Give in to special interests and force people to live in a bizarre, contrived environment that doesn’t provide for their needs and interests, and they’ll go elsewhere.  Just as colleges and universities appear to to be turning away from education as a first priority, so too Rhode Island has turned away from its people.

In the long run, nothing is too big to fail, not even a state.

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Who Pays for Education and What It Proves

Yesterday, I had an interesting Sunday Twitter conversation when local policy guru Gary Sasse suggested that Rhode Island should replace its notion that “tax incentives and real estate deals” are game changers and instead focus on “education, education and education.”  By way of agreeing, John Ward of Woonsocket asserted that Rhode Island is last in the country when it comes to state funding (“participation”) in public education, suggesting that this points to the problem of our high property-tax burden, to which Sasse added the specific that RI ranks 44th in portion of school funding coming from the state.

That raises an interesting topic — one of those that illustrates both how slippery statistics can be (advising caution about their use) and how useful such data points can be for narrowing down what people find to be important and what they believe would change things for the better.  Such exercises may be the only way really to advance policy discussions.

Although I couldn’t get anybody to point me to a specific source, I think they were referring to a Census report from last June that breaks down state-level 2013 education funding by use and by source.  Indeed, according to Table 5 in the report, Rhode Island is 44th  on the list for the percentage of public elementary and secondary school funding that comes from “state sources.”

The problem, for John’s property tax point, is that Rhode Island improves a little, moving to 42nd, when it comes the percentage of funding that comes from “local sources.”  More importantly, the states that rely more on local revenue (which is presumed, in the conversation, to be a bad thing holding Rhode Island back) are more-directly comparable to Rhode Island as a regional matter: Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey.

Another dimension of the ranking that Sasse original cited can’t be ignored — namely, the amount that each state spends in total.  Rhode Island’s funding from local sources is 7th highest (not counting Washington, D.C.), behind its near neighbors.  But our state funding is hardly back-of-the-pack, at 21st, and is supplemented by the 9th-highest federal funding.  In other words, that original percentage (state portion of funding) results from the facts that (1) the state spends so much in total and (2) the local governments add so much more into it.

Now, I’m definitely not one to deny that the state forces much of this cost onto localities, through funding mandates and laws in favor of labor unions that drive up local costs.  But that doesn’t mean the answer is to shift the excessive burden from local taxpayers onto state-level taxpayers, much less that doing so would be a game-changing economic development move.

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When Academics Get in the Way of Activism

I don’t think I can, in good conscience, leave this Brown Daily Herald article about the difficulty that students at the university are having balancing academics and activism, without comment, so I’ll pivot off of Katherine Timpf’s suggestion:

If you want to do no college coursework and full-time social-justice work, how about just not going to college and doing social justice work full time?

Brilliant, I know. I don’t know how I thought of it either! What’s more, it can actually save you from racking up all of that student-loan debt that you’re always also complaining about!

Honestly, I don’t see why a social-justice activist would need to spend money on an education anyway . . . it’s so clear that they’re already so much smarter than the rest of us.

Obviously, the problem for these students is that their lives at Brown are either fully or substantially subsidized through loans, scholarships, and or parental largess, creating a substantial cost to dropping out.  Why the government, the school, or the parents would subsidize this acadmicesque lifestyle, I’m not sure.

And frankly, given the news that the activists are able to get classroom extensions for the purpose of being socially aware makes me wonder why anybody seeking actual academic rigor would consider Brown at all.

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A Question of Collegiate and Cultural Identity

Not to give the latest copycat protests at Providence College more attention than they deserve, but this passage in a Providence Journal article strikes me as raising a critical point:

[President Rev. Brian ] Shanley instead announced he wanted to write a pact using his own words, but couldn’t do it “right now.” Mary-Murphy Walsh, a senior and one organizer, said the group of more than 50 students at this private Catholic college were frustrated and disappointed — eight hours and nothing.

They stopped. They prayed.

“We took a minute to channel our ancestors, take a few breaths and get into prayer circles,” she explained Wednesday. “And then it was back to business.”

Compassion and nuance are essential in life and society, of course, but sometimes it’s helpful to step back and describe things simply and in stark terms. Here we have students in the office of the priest-president of a Roman Catholic college conducting a pagan prayer as part of their action to change the character of the college, notably in the area of its teachings on Western Civilization.

Stating the situation in this way doesn’t suggest any particular action, but the reality ought to be considered in the response. What is essential in the college’s Catholic identity? What might it mean for such a college to capitulate on points of culture? And Christians also have to ask: Is there something spiritual in the mix that ought to be considered?

The first question is especially important. All controversies should come back to a clearly articulated reason for the Catholic Church’s being in the college business in the first place. It shouldn’t be possible for somebody like me, a Catholic who ponders these things more than the average person, not to know the answer.

Without such clarity, the college — let alone the Catholic community — risks grave error, particularly when the movement seeking to change the school is spreading stickers with such peremptory messages as “Justice… or Else!” Or else what? And what do they mean by “justice”? If those whose school and culture are being targeted don’t have definitions of their own, then they’re in no position to resist, much less to educate.

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SATs and Any Excuse to Spend Taxpayer Money

A quick question: Is there any expansion of the government budget that the Providence Journal editorial board wouldn’t support?

Given its importance, it makes sense that parents and teachers and schools should be encouraging students to prepare for and take the SAT. Thus, Gov. Gina Raimondo is on the right track with her plan to make the PSAT and the SAT “free” for Rhode Island public high school students — funded by the taxpayers, that is — and let them take the test during a school day rather than on a Saturday.

It stands to reason that both of these moves will encourage more students to take the test — particularly those who might find it difficult to pay a registration fee that can be more than $50. It also stands to reason that more students taking the test could result in more students choosing to attend college or further their education. According to a 2015 College Board study of Maine’s decision to make the SAT mandatory, the policy resulted in a more than 40 percent increase in the number of students taking the test and a 2 to 3 percent increase in the state’s college enrollment rate.

The one data point — that is, the one statement that doesn’t take the form of “it stands to reason” — is a study of Maine’s mandating the SAT, which study was performed by the College Board. The editorial doesn’t happen to mention it, but the College Board sells the SAT. It stands to reason that readers should be skeptical when a private company finds it beneficial for the government to force people to use its product.

But what about the conclusions that the Providence Journal reaches simply through reasoning? Is the cost of a $50 test really what’s keeping students from committing to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on college? Perhaps the editors would note the proliferation of scholarships and loans that make college “affordable” for lower-income students, but shouldn’t there be any cost to the prospective student, causing him or her to give some thought to his or her reasons for attending college?

Apparently not. So, you and I will pick up this $50 tab. Then, we’ll subsidize the individual students’ tuition, which very likely is a big part of the tuition inflation that affects everybody. Then, if they live in or move to Rhode Island, we’ll pay their loans fully for a few years. Then, if they still find themselves struggling with debt in a failing economy, we’ll cover them with food stamps, Medicaid, housing subsidies, and a number of other welfare programs.

And all of this, by the way, is before we challenge the editors’ dubious assumption that students emerge from subsidized college, which they attend without immediate reason to weigh the cost, “well educated.”

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What Kind of Leaders Will Providence College Create?

So Providence College President Reverend Brian Shanley did make his college’s race-grievance agitators wait for a bit, and his resolution wasn’t so much a capitulation as a diplomatic delay, but I worry about the attitude we’re teaching the current generation of college students:

After a 13-hour sit-in outside President Rev. Brian J. Shanley’s office, about 50 Providence College students protesting what they called “anti-blackness and racism on campus” ended their demonstration when Shanley agreed to make progress on the demands.

Senior Mary-Murphy Walsh, one of the sit-in’s organizers, said late Tuesday night that Shanley “did promise today that he would do everything in his capacity. We will see within 20 days, we will see what he comes up with.”

From what outside readers can tell, the students’ complaints have mainly to do with an off-campus party and a number of unconfirmed incidents over which the college cannot be expected to have any control anyway. At best, the organization can only offset the inappropriate behavior of individuals (if that behavior actually exists) with handouts to special interests, although the protesters’ demands go as far as rewriting the Western Civilization curriculum, which may be tantamount to rewriting history, and mandating “cultural-sensitivity training,” which is essentially forced reeducation, in contrast to, say, forums for public discussion of different views.

To the young protesters — shown in the Providence Journal photograph enjoying the comfortable area outside the president’s office, with its conditioned air and complimentary wifi — there is no such thing as differing views. The intellectual landscape consists of their worldview surrounded by inexcusable racism and failure to capitulate.

Complaining that Shanley didn’t rush back from Florida to address a minor he-said-she-said incident off campus, Providence NAACP representative Pilar McCloud said:

“By staying away and coming back at his scheduled time, to me it’s an open handed slap in the face and the students already had a list of demands for the president prior to that,” McCloud said. “This incident is just the icing on the cake.”

“Nothing gets resolved, nothing gets done and people feel like they are not being respected or heard,” she added. “So what did you expect them to do? It is their God given right to express themselves. PC, as much as they would like to, can’t take that away from them.”

Note what McCloud is saying, here. The students’ “right to express themselves” entails a requirement that others prove that they are “respected or heard,” which is proven by acceding to a list of demands. Failure to respond to the children’s stomping feet is “an open handed slap in the face.”

Again, what happens when these students leave the comforts of the expensive university setting? What happens to them, and what will they do to our society?

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RIC Foundation Chairman Avoids the Real Issue

I’ve been saying that Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s abuse of power, like Democrat President Barack Obama’s, relies on a level of audacity. To the extent this newer generation of politicians acknowledges that concerns about their behavior exist, the response is essentially, “Of course we can do this.” As illustration, consider an op-ed by William Hurt, the Chairman of the Board of the Rhode Island College Foundation, which hired Raimondo’s Chief Information Officer to a high-paying job that isn’t technically part of government at all.

From the text, published a couple of weeks ago in the Providence Journal:

It is important for Rhode Islanders to know that the board’s decision was based, fundamentally, on the following points:

-The proposal to create the Office of Innovation at RIC was brought to the foundation’s Board of Directors with the support and endorsement of senior officers of Rhode Island College, including the president and the college advancement staff.

-This new office will enrich the academic and career development experiences for students and provide new research opportunities for both students and faculty through hands-on experiences and other resources that no other college in Rhode Island currently has.

-While the foundation has identified sufficient unrestricted, undesignated and discretionary funds to provide the seed money to get the office started, the foundation expects and the new chief innovation officer is charged with securing funding sufficient to restore the foundation’s initial investment fully, as well as to create a self-sustaining office going forward.

-A considerable amount of due diligence was done to ensure that the new Office of Innovation fell within the parameters of the foundation’s mission and 501(c)3 nonprofit status.

That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t address the basic question of this employee’s role within state government. That’s where the problem arises, and Hurt doesn’t bother to address it. The problem isn’t that the RIC Foundation has hired somebody to develop programs within the college, but that the job is actually to “partner with a multitude of stakeholders,” as Hurt puts it, on behalf of the state, all while trying to raise money for his own office at RIC. The conflicts of interest are so clear, here, the avoidance of ethics rules so obvious, that the only way it can possibly slip through is by the pure force of will and political power of the government insiders who are going along with it.

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Officials Rely on Short Memories for Budget Rhetoric

They can never just present their requests without layering in some political spin, can they? There it is, on slide 6 of the school department’s budget presentation for the upcoming year — produced by Superintendent William Rearick and Director of Administration and Finance Douglas Fiore — as an explanation for the request for $56,100 for a remedial math teacher:

This position was eliminated from last year’s budget as a result of the approval of the alternate budget proposal at the FTR.

This statement spins so much and leaves out so much that anybody who watched the budget process and its aftermath, last year, would have to call it untrue.

Continue reading on Tiverton Fact Check.

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UPDATED: Frias Shows Raimondo Doubletalk on Taxes

One really has to go out of one’s way not to see evidence that Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo and the rest of Rhode Island’s political establishment is not interested in coming to correct answers so much as saying anything to get their insider deals over the (ostensibly) legal finish line. In today’s Providence Journal, Steven Frias notes that Raimondo’s friends at the Brookings Institution proclaim that “Massachusetts and New Hampshire show the way forward,” but gloss over the degree to which cutting taxes made a difference:

In 1979, the Massachusetts High Technology Council (MHTC), a trade association of high-tech companies, declared that the “single most important step to stimulate the growth of the high technology industry in Massachusetts is real tax relief.” MHTC explained that the “higher cost of living and doing business in Massachusetts can no longer be offset by the proximity of MIT or Boston’s active venture capital market, or the cultural and environmental amenities.” Instead, MHTC insisted “Massachusetts must reduce the tax burden,” particularly for property taxes and income taxes.

MHTC and Citizens for Limited Taxation, an anti-tax grass roots organization led by Barbara Anderson, joined forces to support a voter initiative known as Proposition 2½. Proposition 2½ was designed to reduce property taxes and limit future property tax increases to 2.5 percent per year. To control spending, Proposition 2½ also repealed state laws that gave school committees fiscal autonomy and mandated binding arbitration for police and firefighter unions.

In passing, we should observe that Frias has hit on another of Rhode Island’s problems. Whether because of the state’s size or its long history of corruption, the “business backed” groups that should offer a counterweight to state government as the MHTC did in Massachusetts — think chambers of commerce, business associations, and RIPEC — have simply been bought into the insider system. In RI, they are now almost completely controlled by people with high (often six-figure) salaries who are more worried about losing access to the political font than losing ground for their members.

More relevant to the governor’s budget, though, is the tax-limiting reform: “Proposition 2½ was designed to reduce property taxes and limit future property tax increases to 2.5 percent per year.” Raimondo is headed in the opposite direction.

As I noted last week, her Funding Formula Working Group suggested getting rid of the legal requirement that local taxpayers must pay at least as much toward education each year as they did the prior year, instead requiring them to increase taxes every year for inflation and/or for enrollment increases. (The report did not suggest that this ratchet should go in reverse in times of deflation or dropping enrollment.)

I didn’t see confirmation in the governor’s budget documents that this provision made it in, and the budget legislation isn’t available, yet, but Lynn Arditi has reported that it is, presumably as part of the governor’s effort to make the districts’ complaints about charter funding go away by throwing more money at them.

Bottom line: The Raimondo-Brookings plan is an attempt to work around the problems we all know are destroying the state.

UPDATE (2/3/16 7:58 p.m.):

Well, there it is on page 167. Local taxpayer funding of schools must go up by the greater of inflation or the increase in student enrollment. Municipalities can still calculate the increase per student (to account for decreased enrollment), but inflation must still be included. (Of course, this per-student approach is tricky, because it’s not clear what number counts. If the district projects an increase, for example, even after years of decreases, does that mean the budget must go with the district’s estimate? In RI, the safe bet is that the answer is “yes,” if the district challenges the number.)

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If Non-Freedom Economic Development Doesn’t Work… Try, Try Again

Those who find Rhode Island’s governance maddeningly self serving, obtuse, and inept might have difficulty getting past the opening portion of this Sunday column by Providence Journal Assistant Managing Editor John Kostrzewa:

The difficulty of matching unemployed workers with available jobs, a problem called “closing the skills gap,” has bedeviled Rhode Island governors for decades.

Despite spending millions of dollars, the state still has tens of thousands of out-of-work or underemployed people and thousands of employers who complain they can’t find the help they need.

Now, Governor Raimondo is trying again.

She and Scott Jensen, her hand-picked Department of Labor and Training director, have started a new effort, called Real Jobs Rhode Island, that puts the design of skills-training programs in the hands of business managers who know what they need, not state bureaucrats. They already have handed out $5 million in grants to 26 teams of private companies, nonprofits, educational institutions and industrial associations.

In other words, to the list of now-discarded pretenses that used to allow us to pretend that we lived under a representative democracy, we can add the idea that government can take economic development on as one of its core responsibilities without undermining our free marketplace of rights and opportunities. No longer is the State of Rhode Island pretending that it’s confiscating our money in order to improve our neighbors’ capabilities. No, having failed to educate the public and having restricted our ability to make the economy work, the state is now simply confiscating our money to let businesses shape the population to their own needs.

Of course, the businesses aren’t alone in this. Kostrzewa also cites some progressives studies in support of the idea that the state should shift even more of its emphasis toward catering to the immigrant population that it has been luring here in order to justify its many social service programs:

“We need more resources focused on helping adults learn English so they can gain skills they need to support their children’s education and so they can get better jobs,” said Mario Bueno, executive director of Progreso Latino, in the report.

The referenced report is by the Economic Progress Institute, which Kostrzewa strangely characterizes as simply a “nonpartisan research and policy organization based in Providence.” He could have added that the institute is housed with a sweetheart rental agreement at the public Rhode Island College, after having been birthed (if I’m not mistaken) with funding from the private nonprofit Rhode Island College Foundation, which is currently under scrutiny for helping Governor Gina Raimondo hire a cabinet member outside the reach of the state’s transparency and ethics laws. The institute has also received funding from the state government and, as Kevin Mooney reports, is among the left-wing organizations supported by the Rhode Island Foundation.

Incidentally, Progreso Latino is also on the Rhode Island Foundation’s list of grant recipients, but its funding comes mainly from state and local government, having received over $600,000 from the state last year and almost $900,000 from the federal government.

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Taxpayer Warning on the Education Funding Formula Working Group

To little fanfare, the state’s Funding Formula Working Group released its report making “Recommendations for Improvement of Rhode Island’s Permanent Foundation Education Aid Formula.” The tone of the coverage, such as it was, seemed generally to be that the working group acknowledged some challenges that the formula might be modified to addressed but was under such constraints in what it could recommend that it didn’t suggest anything particularly newsworthy. Given all of the work that the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity has done reviewing education data while research the plausibility of school choice in the state — particularly in developing the RI-DIMES model to predict the effects of school choice policies — the report contains a few points that might be worth raising in the future.

For the moment, though, taxpayers should take special note of this line, which deserves more attention than it received (if it received any):

The funding formula maintenance-of-effort language for cities and towns should be strengthened to account for reasonable factors such as inflation and enrollment increases.

Under Rhode Island law, local taxpayers must give their school districts at least the same amount of money as in the previous year, and they can calculate that amount per pupil, to reduce funding if enrollment drops. A change that imposed an inflation ratchet or that made bigger budgets for increased enrollment automatic while leaving smaller budgets for decreased enrollment to be fought in the political arena would be a significant step against local taxpayers, imposed at the state level.

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The Fruits of Halting Education Reform

Through the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity, I put out a one-page report today, time to coincide with National School Choice Week. Using data available through the Center’s interactive application to review state-level results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, the one-pager points out something that I’ve noted before: Rhode Island actually gained ground through much of the last decade, particularly among disadvantaged students, but hit a hard ceiling when reforms were halted. Here’s one of the charts from the report with an added political dimension that’s quite striking:

RI-NAEP-averagescores-bygroup-wgovernors-2003-2015

As the General Assembly promises to knock around charter schools this session (with some reforms that I actually break from school choice allies in supporting), Rhode Islanders should rouse themselves at least a little bit to insist that the special interests who control our state — in particular, public education — must be made to step aside in the interest of real, secure, long-term school choice that stops funding government-branded schools and starts funding education. In other words, we need real school choice in the Ocean State.

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Government’s Unsurprising Preferred Demographic

Apparently for the first time, Bryant’s Hassenfeld Institute released detailed crosstabs from its most recent public-opinion survey. It’s interesting stuff.

Readers may have seen reports that Governor Gina Raimondo’s toll proposal is under water, with more people opposing it than supporting it. Republicans’ pay-as-you-go alternative is also under water, by even more, but the question may have caused that result with the phrase, “may take longer to repair the roads and bridges.” Given a list of four alternatives for funding infrastructure repairs, voters overwhelmingly support “reallocating state money to pay for the repairs,” 37.2% versus a toll-and-borrow plan’s 21.9%. In fact, people are even less supportive of pay-as-you-go with a truck toll (12.5%).

Particularly interesting, though, is the right-direction/wrong-direction question. Rhode Islanders are notably less optimistic than they were in September, although still a little more optimistic than last April. According to the newly available information in the latest poll, a large part of the “right direction” results come from people under 40 with household income under $25,000.

Tracing those groups through the other questions — especially measured by income — shows they tend to fall on what might be called the pro-government side. They are the least likely, for example, to support reallocating other money to infrastructure. They are the least likely to say “locally elected officials” are doing a “fair/poor” job (although more than half still say it). They give elected state officials the best marks.

When it comes to education reform, those with incomes under $25,000, they are the most likely to say principals need more authority, yet the least likely to say that the system has to “make it easier to deal with under performing teachers. (Perhaps they don’t see principals as the managerial employees who would handle underperforming teachers, but more like head teachers, themselves.) They are also among the least likely to support expanded school choice.

Not surprisingly, those with incomes under $25,000 are also the most likely to say that they are Democrats, as the only income group among which more than half of respondents say they are a member of a particular party.

That sheds some light, I’d say, on the state government’s preference for policies to make ours a “company state,” in which the government imports clients for itself, largely from other countries. It also seems relevant to an approach to economic development that places a premium on, as the Brookings Institution report put it, “coveted Millennials.”

The young and the least wealthy also made up the smallest groups in the Hassenfeld Institute’s survey. Many of the policies that our state government pursues can be explained if we assume that government officials want to change that.

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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.

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Public Schools and Concern for the Future

Over in Detroit, unionized public school teachers have shut down schools attended by 46,000 students, of whom, Lindsey Burke points out, large percentages can’t achieve proficiency on key academic subjects.  That’s just what labor unions do:  rig things in members’ favor, limit options for fixing problems, and then shut the system down when even friendly Democrat administrations can’t keep up with the demands.

Meanwhile, in Providence, some students are demanding that standard topics of history — key to the rationale of publicly funding education in order to maintain the nation’s sense of itself as a nation — be displaced in favor of telling them more about themselves and their ancestral backgrounds:

“We should be learning about more of the world than the United States,” said Diane Gonzalez from Central High School. “I’m Guatemalan and I have no idea about my history. They make it seem like our countries are meaningless…”

Licelot Caraballo, from E-Cubed Academy in Providence, said he wants students to “feel connected to their history, not to lose it because they can’t access it. Our history matters. We can make history in Providence, our history in Providence.”

According to the 2015 PARCC results, only 7.4% of Central High students are performing up to expectations in language arts, with E-Cubed doing a little better, at 14.8%.  In math, the schools do much worse, with 2.7% and 1.9%, respectively.  The proposal to dilute the school day with more history from other countries should be viewed with great skepticism, notwithstanding an academic study finding grade improvement with ethnic studies in California.  Even if we assume the results of that study are not biased or simply resulting from a flawed methodology, what they might mainly illustrate is that progressive obsession with race and ethnicity is a much more palpable detriment to students than most people would guess.  (That is, these students are so hindered by the racial-grievance mindset that even mild alleviation brings improvements.)

What’s most stunning about the Providence students’ statements, though, is the sheer passivity.  Nothing is stopping students from learning about the countries of their ancestors.  Moreover, the fact that the government doesn’t hand something to somebody doesn’t mean that he or she has no access to it.  (There’s a lesson that begs for expanded application.)

Both teachers in Detroit and students in Providence appear to have the attitude that activism is the only initiative that one need take.  Going out to achieve things on your own is out; demanding that other people give you things is in.  Look no farther for evidence that we need more American history, not less.

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Charters as a Step to True Government Monopoly

For a year or more, my fellow conservatives have looked at me a bit funny when I’ve suggested that maybe we shouldn’t see charter schools as part of our school choice movement.  If you look past intentions and the first-order effects of charter school proliferation and take into account other forces in public education, observing what’s actually happening, you can easily foresee a future in which we discover that charter schools were simply a stepping stone to a total government monopoly of education, rather than just the near-monopoly that we have now.

First, we find it is impossible to break the insider-labor-union grip that’s preventing public schools from fulfilling their mission.  Second, charter schools act as a school choice opportunity with full public school–level funding (which is much higher than most private school options in the state).  Third, non-elite private schools go out of business because they can’t compete with charters’ free-to-parents price point.  Fourth, once charters have killed the private school market in the state, the insider-labor-union forces flex their muscles and absorb the charters back into the education blob.

A Linda Borg article in today’s Providence Journal suggests that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence — the state’s single largest operator of private schools, most of them in the affordable range — sees the threat of step 3 and isn’t interested in playing along.  The diocese has opted not to extend a lease with Blackstone Valley Prep, the largest network of charter schools.

Charter supporters claim there’s no evidence that they’re poaching students from private schools, despite the striking parallel of the numbers, but they ignore the complexity of human decisions.  As contrary evidence, Blackstone Valley director of external affairs Jennifer LoPiccolo notes that “the vast majority of their students are enrolled in kindergarten, not the later grades” (in Borg’s paraphrase), so kids leaving Catholic schools can’t be transferring.  But take a bunch of kindergarten kids out of a private school, and its tuition has to go up, pushing parents out.  Some of their children will win the charter-school lottery, but most will simply lose their choice and return to district public schools.  When the Catholic school ultimately closes its doors, that scenario plays out across its entire student body.

From a small-government, free-market perspective, one would have difficulty coming up with a better example of government’s using its ability to regulate, legislate, and direct near-limitless public resources to its preferred providers (mainly its own) than charter schools.  Still, somehow, I’ve already had heated arguments about, for example, H7067, which would remove the unfunded mandate that local property taxpayers must provide big funding to charter schools.  In my assessment, that would be a good, positive change consistent with conservative principles.  Local taxpayers have next to zero input when it comes to charter schools, so they should have some say about whether or to what extent they want to fund them.

Whatever one’s political persuasion, Rhode Islanders need to give some fresh consideration to charters.