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How You Can Help Break the Union Grip that Contributed Mightily to Providence Education “Horror Show”

By now, you must have heard about the scathing Wall Street Journal editorial on the Providence school system. They didn’t hold back, and it is right in line with what our Center has been saying for years. It is a total embarrassment for teachers who truly care about educating kids.

The WSJ put blame on the powerful teachers unions as a key reason why students are not receiving the education they deserve.

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Larry Fitzmorris: All Down Side, No Benefit to Portsmouth Unifying High School with Newport

In a stunning decision, the Portsmouth Town Council voted 7-0 on June 24 to enter into discussions with Newport for joining the two high schools into a unified system. The proposal by Newport School Superintendent Colleen Burns Jermain had been rejected by the Middletown Council.

We have been down this road before. This decision reverses a May 2011 unanimous vote by the Portsmouth School Committee to end discussions on regionalizing all three of the Island’s districts and reject any regional approach.

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Rhode Island: An OK Place to Live

Obviously, the more subjective the thing an index attempts to measure, the more subject it will be to interpretation, and WalletHub has made a cottage industry of cranking out subjective rankings.  That said, the Web site’s “Best States to Live in” ranking from June has some interesting considerations for the Ocean State.

Notably, the Ocean State is supposedly the 29th best state in which to live… which seems OK, considering Rhode Islanders’ expectation to come in at the very bottom of all rankings.  OK begins to look not so good, though, when one zooms out on the map.  WalletHub claims Massachusetts is #1 and New Hampshire #3.  Vermont and Maine are both in the teens, and Connecticut comes in at #20.

Looking at the subcategories, RI’s worst result was in “affordability,” which shouldn’t surprise anybody.  The Ocean State was the fourth least affordable state, after New York, California, and New Jersey.  But here’s the thing:  No New England states are very affordable.  Massachusetts, for example, is 43rd and New Hampshire is 42nd.

So what makes the difference?  Massachusetts is in the top 5 for everything else:  economy, education & health, quality of life, and safety.  New Hampshire only misses the top 5 in quality of life.  Meanwhile, Rhode Island only breaks the top 20 on the safety subcategory (at #5).  The conclusion is that Rhode Island might not be able to avoid being expensive, but that only means it can’t afford to be unattractive by other measures.

Here’s where the subjectivity of the index becomes important.  Quality of life includes things that Rhode Island can’t help, like the weather, and things that depend on one’s values and interests.  The importance of “miles of trails for bicycling and walking” will vary from person to person.

But quality of life also includes things like the quality of the roads, which is pretty universally valued.  Meanwhile, multiple criteria that the index uses center around leisure activities that cost money, which means disposable income is a factor, as is the ease with which businesses can pop up to answer the demand.

MIT’s Living Wage Calculator states that a single Rhode Islander needs to make $12.35 per hour over a 2,080-hour workyear.  However, $1.86 of that goes to taxes.  For comparison, in New Hampshire, only $1.50 per hour goes to taxes.

This all suggests an unsurprising solution for improving Rhode Island’s standing:  lower taxes, use the money that is collected for things that are of more universal value, and decrease regulations.  We’d all have more money to spend, we’d feel better about our day-to-day life, and we’d be better able to answer each other’s needs.

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Hair Braider Freedom Passes GA: An Important Shrinking of Government

VICTORY! For years, our Center has worked, both publicly and behind the scenes, to secure an important and symbolic freedom for Rhode Island families. During the last moments of the 2019 General Assembly session, lawmakers voted to exempt natural hair braiders from the occupational licensing requirement for hairdressers and cosmeticians within the state.

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Important One Year Milestone: Union Membership is Now Your Choice

The end of the 2019 school year coincides with an important milestone: June 27th will be the one year marker since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which determined that forcibly collecting union dues and fees from public workers, including teachers, is unconstitutional.

This summer is the perfect time to ask yourself the question: What is my union doing for me?

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Discrimination at the University of Rhode Island

Mark Perry, of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), notes that the University of Rhode Island has made the list of American institutions of higher education under investigation by the federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR) for possible violations of Title IX:

The University just accepted $1 million from Karen L. Adams for single-sex, female-only scholarships that will discriminate based on sex (no male students are allowed to apply and that scholarship funding openly excludes male students from participation based on sex, and that scholarship funding openly denies male students from the benefits of that funding in violation of Title IX.

This isn’t the only discriminatory program at URI.  In 2017, I became aware of a chemistry camp at the university available for free to Rhode Island middle school students, as long as they are female.  The 2019 camp was in April.  In fact, the week-long camp is so popular that it’s full, and participation is limited to those who have not gone in the past:

A weeklong chemistry camp for Rhode Island girls in grades 6-8. Girls will come to URI every day (transportation not included) from 9 am to 4 pm April 15-19, and take part in a full day of interactive science education. Each day has a THEME, will include lunch and snack, and will allow girls to participate in hands-on science experiments. No experience is necessary, just an interest in science and a sense of fun! We will talk with female scientists in interesting professions, travel to Mystic Aquarium, and visit the Narragansett Bay Commission. THE CAMP IS FREE; students are expected to figure out their own transportation to and from URI daily.

When I first noticed the program, I contacted the professor who runs it, Mindy Levine.  She acknowledged that “research that [she had] read on boys’ education indicates clearly that current educational models are designed for girls and the way girls learn, and that all children (but especially boys) would benefit from more extensive hands-on, experiential learning.”  Professor Levine said she would be willing to work with somebody on a program for boys, but I’m not able to find any that have been developed.

This is the seventh year of the girls program, funded by Pfizer, and it accommodates 40 girls (or boys who identify as girls).

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Like Plaque, Education Bureaucracies Are Cumulative

It was to be expected that even inadequate, sound-good education reforms from Rhode Island’s General Assembly would come at a cost, as reported by the Providence Journal’s Linda Borg:

The Senate Finance Committee last month asked Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green what she would need to take on the new responsibilities included in this package of legislation, which, among other things, calls for instituting high-quality civics instruction, expanding world languages statewide, improving instruction for students with dyslexia and giving principals more authority.

“To fully support the requirements of these legislative priorities and to transform the department to focus more on supporting educators, students, and the community, RIDE needs additional expertise and capacity across a wide range of areas, such as implementing high-quality curriculum and supporting school leaders,” said Rhode Island Department of Education spokesman Pete Janhunen. “The request contains a list of proposed positions that align with the priorities of both the commissioner and the General Assembly.”

The ask is for $1.9 million, mostly to hire new personnel.  One question remains unasked, however.  If this is a “shift” in the nature of the department, are there no roles that no longer need to be filled?

This is another $1.9 million for the state’s education bureaucracy, so it can edge in on the territory of local decision makers.  Actually, it’s fig-leaf spending and reorganizing in order to avoid addressing the actual problem:  Our public schools have insufficient accountability and are structured for the benefit of the adults who work in them, rather than the children who attend them.

Until Rhode Islanders have had enough and are willing to force elected officials to address that problem, every proposed solution will amount to merely more or less wasted money and time.

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Picking the Monopoly Among Government Schools

Linda Borg reports in the Providence Journal that the Chariho regional school district has been permitted to continue in its suit against the State of Rhode Island for allowing additional career and technical centers in the region, allegedly in breach of their agreement:

… Chariho filed suit in Superior Court alleging that the education department had breached its contract by approving similar vocational programs at Westerly and Narragansett High Schools. Chariho also sought a permanent injunction to prohibit the state from authorizing other career and tech centers in the region.

Chariho has long complained that Wagner’s efforts to expand school choice have hurt preexisting vocational programs. Wagner, in an effort to promote Gov. Gina Raimondo’s support for career and technical education, has encouraged traditional high schools to open their own career and tech programs.

The outcome of the lawsuit is probably going to hinge on whether a program opened at an existing high school counts as a “center.”  Chariho cares, as Superintendent Barri Ricci makes clear in the article, because the district must pay another district if students within its boundaries choose to cross those boundaries for a particular program.  Though more difficult to track,  the district also loses revenue to the extent students from other districts decide to stay within their own boundaries for similar programs.

Contract provisions aside, the case illustrates a broader point about government services.  Chariho is claiming a contractual right to a monopoly on career and technical training within the public school system in that area.  If families want to pay extra to send children to private academies, the district has little say.  It is only because we’ve set up this system of schools for which we insist students’ families can’t be expected to pay that this is an issue.

Most within-government school choice — notably charter schools — takes the form of the public sector competing with the private sector.  Taxpayers are simply forced to pay for the education services for which families would otherwise have had to pay, giving government schools a massive advantage in attracting customers.

When the competition is between government schools, however, choices become subject to the political process.  The state government gets to decide what choices families have and what government agencies get the monopoly advantages.

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Solving Government’s Bad Attitude About Lunch Bills by Replacing Parents with Government

It appears that another embarrassing Rhode Island story has captured the imagination of the nation: Lunch shaming, or giving students a minimal meal when their parents have built up a tab for school lunches.  Locally, the topic has been around for quite a while; it was a topic in one of my podcasts from April 2017.

In a nutshell, my take was to suggest that we’ve lost our way if we’re having public policy debates about how school districts should deal with parents who are deadbeats when it comes to lunch money.  I mean, can you imagine a private school shaming their customers’ children over a $5 lunch tab?  The whole attitude is different, even to the point of seeing students and their families as customers rather than something more like wards or even burdens.

The expansion of that attitude rears its head in a policy proposal that is making its way through Rhode Island’s brain trust:

[Elizabeth Burke Bryant of RI Kids Count] is advocating for the approval of a community eligibility provision which would provide free and reduced lunches to all students and avoid singling out children based on their family’s finances.

The community eligibility provision, which is part of Governor Gina Raimondo’s proposed budget, would provide free meals for all students within districts that have a large percentage of low-income families.

The unhealthy perspective engendered by big government has had the unhappy consequence of shaming children.  The solution, we’re told, is to expand government further into the role of parents, thus expanding the reach of the big-government attitude.  This will have consequences for Rhode Island families that can be as disastrous, in aggregate, as they are unmeasurable.

Providing for your children is part of what makes parenthood worthwhile.  Packing a lunch with love is one of the most straightforward and basic expressions of that responsibility.

Go away, big government.  Let us be families.

The dynamic is reminiscent of the argument that government schools have to instruct all children according to the state’s beliefs about sex because some minority of parents will do a poor job educating their own children.  In the case of school lunches, statists don’t want to single out children who need help funding lunch, so they’re going to edge in on the relationship of most parents and their children.

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Seeing RI Policy Through a National Lens

Being so enmeshed in Rhode Island policy and politics, while also following national news and commentary, I always find it to be like a crossing of the streams when the state becomes part of the national narrative.  Here’s Rhode Island’s entry into the national conversation about “free” college, via a Grace Gottschling report on CampusReform, under the headline, “RI Gov. pushes for ‘free’ college… with $200 million deficit”:

All graduating high school students, regardless of family income, are eligible for RI Promise and non-citizen residents are also eligible. It is unclear if this proposed expansion to include Rhode Island College, the four-year state school, would also allow non-citizen residents to be eligible. According to the RI Promise website, individuals are eligible if they are Rhode Island residents and qualify for in-state tuition. Rhode Island is one of two states in the nation that allows individual college Boards of Regents to decide whether to offer in-state tuition to illegal immigrants.

Campus Reform reached out to the governor’s office to confirm whether illegal immigrants would be eligible for free, four-year college under the proposed expansion, but did not hear back in time for publication.

Sometimes it renews one’s sense of the insanity of Rhode Island governance to presumptively see it through the eyes of those who live elsewhere.  Perhaps increased coverage by the Boston Globe will mean more RI-story pickups at lower-tier publications like CampusReform.

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Admissions Scandal Is So Very Rhode Island

I’ve got an op-ed in today’s Washington Times, about Rhode Island’s own connection with the college-entrance bribery scandal:

When Rhode Islanders heard that the women’s tennis coach of the state’s public university had been arrested in connection with the national bribery for admission scandal, many must have said, “Wait, what?” Students can get an excellent education at the University of Rhode Island, and it’s certainly an affordable option, but it isn’t exactly an institution for which the nation’s rich and famous would have to pay the sort of premium that might attract the FBI’s attention.

When they learned the details, locals’ reaction was probably something more like, “How very Rhode Island.”

This paragraph is probably the key takeaway for Rhode Islanders:

Rhode Island’s leaders are like the parents who’ve bribed their children’s way into institutions of higher education that were well beyond their merit. Both cases exhibit an implicit insecurity and a desire for people under their care or authority to be something they’re not. In contrast, the initial questions that political leaders and parents ask should be: Who are you really, and how can you achieve your full potential, being who you are? With that more-human perspective as the starting point, parents might not set their children up for embarrassing failure (or criminal prosecution).

Read the whole thing, as they say.

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Time for Some Thought About Our Public Higher Education

Downward trends in enrollment in Rhode Island’s public institutions of higher education could be an inevitability, given demographic trends and younger generations’ (wisely) reevaluating the value of a purposeless slog through college:

Rhode Island College has seen a 4.9-percent drop in the last year, one of the greatest declines of any college in the region.

The University of Rhode Island has experienced a decline of 1.7 percent, and CCRI has dropped by 1.6 percent.

The numbers seem to fly in the face of CCRI’s success with Rhode Island Promise students, recent high school graduates who receive two years of free tuition as long as they maintain a C-plus average and enroll full-time. The college said its enrollment of Promise students has doubled since the program began in summer 2017.

One could speculate that RIC’s disproportionate drop has to do with the ability of its students to take a couple of years for free at CCRI, but the decline generally bears its own explanation.  Beyond the hypothetical inevitabilities mentioned above, an improving economy could be leading some sorts of students to make the leap to private colleges.

My eldest child is entering the time of college tours and made the long trip across the state to URI with my wife, whom I met when we both attended.  The prospective student remarked how dirty the campus looked.  The alumna indicated that the campus has packed a number of new buildings on its acres, crowding out the ruralish (or at least suburgbanish) feel it had when we were there.

Granted that this is a tough time of year by which to judge a campus, but a subsequent trip to Quinnipiac brought no such criticism.

A URI official quoted in the above-linked article notes that the drop is only down from the university’s highest enrollment ever, last year.  Still, we would be wise to come to a collective decision about what we want higher education to be, in Rhode Island.  Attempting to push people into college isn’t advisable, even if it is ostensibly free to them, while losing the character of a campus can change its makeup, sending some students elsewhere.

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A School Choice Nose in the National Tent

Presumably, this proposal would greatly enhance Rhode Island’s tax credit scholarship program:

While most of the K–12 educational-funding and -policy decisions are appropriately housed in the states, an innovative new policy idea would allow the federal government to play a constructive role in expanding educational opportunity in America. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has unveiled a proposal for Education Freedom Scholarships, with corresponding legislation introduced by Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Bradley Byrne. The plan would invest $5 billion annually in America’s students by allowing individuals and businesses to make contributions to in-state, non-profit Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs) that provide scholarships to students. Contributors would receive a non‐refundable, dollar‐for‐dollar federal tax credit in return for their donations. No contributor would be allowed a total tax benefit greater than the amount of their contribution, and not a single dollar would be taken away from public schools and the students who attend them.

The program would actually be administered through the state, which puts Rhode Island at an advantage because we’ve already got such a program going.  Of course, it would be even better if Rhode Island expanded its own program in the ways suggested, here, notably by allowing individuals, and not just corporations, to contribute.

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Not Seeing the Argument for Public School Protectionism

Readers of political and policy news should make it a practice to try to understand an issue from the other side.  If the other side’s advocates are making a complaint, try to understand their legitimate grievances.

I have to admit, however, that I’m having a difficult time seeing the grievances expressed by opponents of Rhode Island’s school “pathways” program as legitimate:

Warwick Supt. Philip Thornton said pathways schools such as Ponaganset are draining students away from his schools, to the tune of $1.4 million a year in lost tuition.

Tuition dollars follow the student when he or she moves from one district to another. Thornton said Warwick has “lost” 86 students to Ponaganset and North Kingstown. In a district facing significant financial challenges, that’s a lot of money.

Shanley, a Warwick Democrat, said the bill would require students to stay in their own school district if the home district has a similar program. …

Parents, he said, see this as a way to get their children into higher-performing school districts.

How can one respond to this except to suggest that Warwick schools should get their act together and make their programs good enough that families don’t pull their children, and maybe even so good that families from other districts move their children into Warwick schools?  And how can one possibly read Representative Evan Shanley’s bill as anything other than protectionism for school districts at the expense of students?

Yes, parents will look for ways to provide a better education for their children.  We should be looking for those ways, too — that is, if our goal really is to provide opportunities and ensure an educated population.

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Race-Obsessed Policy Generates Race-Based Differences

So, here’s a must-read research paper for legislators as they try to conform our world to the vision in their heads:

Mounting empirical research shows that race-preferential admissions policies are doing more harm than good. Instead of increasing the numbers of African Americans entering high-status careers, these policies reduce those numbers relative to what we would have had if colleges and universities had followed race-neutral policies. We have fewer African-American scientists, physicians, and engineers and likely fewer lawyers and college professors. If, as the evidence indicates, the effects of race-preferential admissions policies are exactly the opposite of what was originally intended, it is difficult to understand why anyone would wish to support them.

Basically, the mechanism that brings about this outcome, according to the paper’s author, Gail Heriot, is that giving preference to underrepresented applicants based on their non-academic qualities places students in environments for which they are not adequately prepared and matches them with students with whom they might not be able to compete.

These sort of unintended consequences arise with all sorts of politically correct policies.  One that comes to mind is the “ban the box” push to forbid employers from asking applicants whether they’ve ever been convicted of crimes.  Studies are finding that preventing employers from asking a straightforward question for information they feel they need leads them to use less-direct methods that wind up hurting racial minorities, rather than helping them.

How long until our society decides that the best route to equality is to stop writing racial distinctions into the law and to stop trying to drive racism out of our minds by banning questions that may (or may not) be correlated with it?

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RIC’s Wrong Solution for Subject Matter Gaps

This plan from Rhode Island College illustrates well how our state’s establishment is attempting to cure the symptoms of our educational problem so as to avoid solving the problem itself:

Starting this fall, students who study elementary education at RIC will also be trained to teach one of the following subjects: special education, middle school math or middle school science. …

Like most states, Rhode Island doesn’t have a generic teacher shortage. It has a shortage in certain subjects, including special education, math, science and English as a Second Language.

A new study by Bellwether Education Partners concludes that there is no overall shortage of teachers. Rather, districts face a “chronic and perpetual misalignment [between] teacher supply and demand,” according to “Nuance in the Noise.” Bellwether is a national nonprofit organization that advocates for under-served students.

The problem is our union-driven factory-worker model for education.  Districts can’t differentiate sufficiently between different teaching positions, so challenging positions are dramatically underpaid while other positions pay better than they should, given the work and the willingness of candidates to take the job.

Consequently, public schools attract large numbers of people to the areas precisely where they are not needed.  That is a problem that districts could fix through contract negotiations and that the state could help fix through changes to state law, including laws that currently give the unions an indomitable hand in negotiations.

When challenged on this sort of thing, the response of union organizers is to trot out their approved talking point:  “We want a qualified teacher in every classroom.”  That is the sentiment that appears to be behind this attempt at RIC to plug holes by forcing every teacher who wants to teach elementary school to be qualified to teach something for which there’s actually demand.

Rhode Island is still missing the point by ignoring the importance of individuals’ interests and refusing to allow the market to place an accurate value on certain skills and talents.  Giving education students who’ve shown no special interest in or aptitude for certain subjects might help around the margins, but we should be skeptical of the outcomes for students.  We should also expect that any prospective educators who discover that they have a those valuable talents will make the same calculations that are creating the shortage.

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