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School Building Costs and School Choice

An op-ed by Brown English graduate student Aaron Apps in today’s Providence Journal drew my attention to an FY13 report put out by the Rhode Island Dept. of Education (RIDE).  Here’s Apps:

 Last summer, I wrote a Commentary piece (“City’s schools require immediate repairs,” Aug. 29) describing the conditions I witnessed inside Gilbert Stuart Middle School in Providence’s West End. To reiterate: The paint is peeling off of the walls, the roof is leaking, ceiling tiles are falling down, the water is non-potable, and there is a giant curtain in the main auditorium made of asbestos. Not to mention probable mold, exposed rusty pipes, and piles of unattended-to bird droppings. …

The Rhode Island Department of Education’s 2013 “Public Schoolhouse Assessment” gave Gilbert Stuart a rating of 2 in its scale that ranges from 1 to 4, where 1 is “good” condition and 4 is “poor” condition. The report rates 304 public schools. Of these, the average rating was 2.05, meaning that Gilbert Stuart, in its appalling, unacceptable condition, is slightly better than average, according to the state’s own rating scale.

One important caveat on the study is that conditions are self reported.  That means the ratings are subject to the  perspectives and biases of the people in each district, as well as their political calculations.  A district that’s pushing for more state and local tax dollars might exaggerate its buildings deficiencies, while a district that’s truly concerned about backlash based on deteriorating schools might downplay the problems.

Be that as it may, RIDE estimates almost $2 billion in expenses to bring all schools up to “good condition.”  In contrast, it foresees a continuing drop in enrollment — by more than 13% in the suburbs, for the 2021-2022 school year (compared with 2011-2012).  That’s on top of an excess capacity already calculated at 19% (meaning that much space is available for more students).  So, that huge expense would be to maintain increasingly empty buildings across the state.

The report makes the obvious recommendation of closing schools and consolidating, which leads to the strategy of regionalization.  Whenever either of the steps of that suggestion come up in reality, however, they become the subject of push-back, both from parents and from labor unions, making them very difficult to execute.  As long as there’s a chance that other people can be made to pay the bulk of the cost, nobody wants to give up their neighborhood school or their job.

The solution (as the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity will be laying out over the coming months and years) is a broad program of school choice.  For one thing, empowering families with options changes the politics from a necessity of taking away money and local convenience to a policy of granting opportunity.  For another thing, initial estimates by the Center suggest that school choice would create billions of dollars of flexibility, both in public dollars freed up and in new private dollars invested in tuition.

The question of the near future is going to be whether entrenched interests, including unions, can explode common sense and rational policy for their own benefit.

Death by “Let Them Eat Cake”

I bought a basic cell phone for my grandmother, last night.  As the clerk in the Massachusetts store was adding the phone to my family plan, he remarked, “Wow, you pay a lot of taxes!  Oh, you’re in Rhode Island.”

With that anecdote in mind, this morning, I’d suggest that Rhode Islanders should be wary of advice from an economist who admits that (according to Kate Bramson of the Providence Journal) she’s “puzzled” that Rhode Island’s largest sector, education and healthcare, “is failing to enjoy the growth it’s seeing in the region and the country”:

“…  it seems like there’s this party going on in education and health services,” she continued. “And Rhode Island is not at that party, so I’m not sure why that’s not happening in this state.”

Could it have anything to do with Rhode Island’s heavy regulations and taxes, maybe?  Could it have anything to do with the fact that Rhode Island leads the country in health insurance mandates?  Could it have anything to do with Rhode Island’s teachers’ unions being toward the front of the national pack in their power, especially in political activity and the resources going to the union and union members?

Also on the front page of today’s Providence Journal is a Jennifer Bogdan article about Governor-elect Gina Raimondo’s visit to the White House.  Although the visit, alongside other governors, was mainly a photo-op and meet-and-greet, Bogdan writes, “There were also a few moments for cake.”

Raimondo brought the president a slice of Death by Chocolate Cake from Gregg’s restaurant.  Isn’t that just perfect?

While Rhode Island is failing to join the economic party, the woman who will soon be governor is bringing cake to the president and kicking off her big economic strategy:

“My focus all day … my constant question was, ‘What can you do to help get Rhode Island back to work?’ ” Raimondo said. “I’m going to be very aggressive about knocking on doors.”

In other words, her economic strategy is to be a salesperson, not to change the underlying problems.  That won’t work.  The problem isn’t that business people around the country don’t know Rhode Island is here. It’s that they know what Rhode Island is all about.  It’s all about cake for insiders and shackles for people who want to bring their own little circles of the economy in a personalized direction.

Decreasing taxes, regulations, and mandates and allowing broad school choice would bring the economic party to Rhode Island, but anybody hoping that Raimondo is going to go in the direction of freedom over insiderdom is probably going to be disappointed.

Between the Wolf-Hounds and the Relativists

The general disinterest of Rhode Island’s mainstream media in a wide variety of controversies never ceases to amaze.  With the racial tensions in Ferguson, Missouri, we get multi-page spreads on racism in America, but the racial slurs that members of a government board spat at audience members at a recent RhodeMap RI meeting didn’t even make it into Kate Bramson’s related Providence Journal article.  Jonathan Gruber, the MIT ObamaCare architect who has been caught on film multiple times rejoicing in the fleecing of Americans, and who did work for HealthSource RI that may have contributed to its unrealistic estimates of customers, has hardly been noticed by local journalists.

One of the many threads of thought that unwind from such observations is voiced here by National Review’s Jay Nordlinger:

A friend of mine wrote me this morning saying that he feared Republicans would not “put the genie back in the bottle.” Obama has now broken free from our political process. Republicans will feel unhindered, when they have executive power.

I don’t believe it. First, I don’t think Republicans in general want to abuse their power (though some do, for sure). They have a constitutional conscience, or a semblance of one. But second, the “culture” won’t let them. The media, the professors, the entertainment industry — they won’t allow anti-constitutionalism for conservative or right-wing ends. They will allow it only for “progressive” ends. If a conservative result threatens, they will be gung-ho for the process.

If nothing else, rapid juxtaposition of the media’s hostile  treatment of the Bush administration with its coddling of the Obama administration has been instructive — almost in a way that would be too obvious for a novelist to get away with.

Actually, it brings to mind a cluster of chapters in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece, The First Circle.  Two pairs of political prisoners outside of Moscow are using their Sunday evening respite for conversation.  In one pair, the peasant character Spiridon is telling his life story, in which his decisions always had him working with whoever happened to hold local power, because his real priority was his family.  Asked for a guiding principle against this apparent relativism, he states, “wolf-hounds are right and cannibals are wrong.”

Meanwhile, one of the two other prisoners, having a more intellectual argument, accuses his opponent of having no intellectual consistency because the ends justify the means.  Rubin, the accused (a devoted Marxist), insists that’s false “on the personal plane.”  However, in the Soviet Union, “For the first time in the history of mankind we have an aim which is so sublime that we can really say that it justifies the means employed to attain it.”

One question for Rhode Island and America, I suppose, when judging its political class and the “culture” (in Nordlinger’s sense) is whether progressivism is a sublime aim or we’re the wolves to the progressives’ wolf-hounds.

Trying to Conduct Civic Debates in Town Politics

On one hand, people engaged in political and policy arguments at higher levels of government seem likely to have more experience engaging with people who disagree with them.  On the other hand, one would think folks would be more hesitant to play political cards like black-and-white “my opponent is just evil” games when they’re dealing with neighbors they see around town on a regular basis.

So much for expectations about how people would act.

Earlier this week, I published a commentary that went through the history of Tiverton Budget Committee elections and argued that, if the new Town Council does not appoint the next-highest vote getter from the Budget Committee election to fill a vacancy, it would be a divisive, precedent-setting move.

Until 2002, Budget Committees were elected biannually at the financial town meeting, and any vacancies were automatically filled in order of their totals from the previous  votes.  Since then, it has only happened once before that a Budget Committee member won an election to Town Council and had to be replaced immediately after the election.  In that case, the Council unanimously appointed the next-highest vote getter, even though she was from another faction in town than arguably a majority of the Council.

I acknowledged that the same Town Council had not appointed the next next-highest vote getter to fill vacancies the following year.  However, time had passed, and she doesn’t appear to have expressed interest in the job.

In the current situation, if the next-highest vote getter (from the slate of candidates whom I supported) is passed over for somebody more in step with the Town Council majority (from the slate of candidates whom I opposed), it would be a sign that endorsees from Tiverton 1st and the Tiverton Democratic Town Committee don’t really believe that stuff they say about “uniting the town” and “working together.”

The chairman of the Democratic Town Committee, Michael Burk, responded to my argument in the local Sakonnet Times.  Actually, he didn’t really respond.  It’s more like he took the opportunity to attack me as a villain.  It’s Saul Alinsky for locals.

I responded on the merits, here, but didn’t really convey how disappointing Burk’s response is.  It’s clear that there will be no arguing in good faith.  Whoever started town politics on this nasty path (I’d say it’s obviously them; they’d say the opposite), there’s no hope for bringing down the temperature when one side makes an argument supported by facts and the other side replies as Burk did.

Dangerous Complacency at Rhode Island League of Cities & Towns Towards RhodeMap RI?

A friend forwarded me an interesting and alarming e-mail thread with regard to RhodeMap RI. Below is the text of two of the e-mails, which went out this afternoon, followed by the author and his title. On Thursday morning, the State Planning Council will vote on a proposed Economic Development Plan which largely incorporates the […]

Dawson Doesn’t Get the Annex of Conservatism and Minorities

While preparing to disengage from the Internet Friday evening, I came across a statement from soon-to-be-former State Senator and unsuccessful Republican candidate for attorney general Dawson Hodgson that merits response.  From Ian Donnis’s weekly must-read TGIF post for the week:

Hodgson and fellow Republican Catherine Taylor got swamped in Rhode Island’s cities. So it’s not surprising to hear Hodgson call for the RI GOP to do a better job in courting Latino and black voters, particularly in Providence. “That’s the future of this [Republican] Party if we want to be competitive in the urban landscape,” Hodgson said on this week’s RIPR Bonus Q+A. “I think there are a lot of principles that cross over and that are very generationally appealing: freedom, the ability to control your own destiny and make your way in life and be given a fair shot by your government. That’s what being a Republican means to me. I think that’s a winning message in Providence if you can get people to listen to it.”

This makes me wonder if Hodgson has actually spent much time interacting with urban members of minority communities that already do or might nearly align with Republicans.  As I’ve pointed out before (on this site and on TV), while he and his fellow white, male, suburban Republican state senators were taking a bow for being the only full Republican caucus in the country to back same-sex marriage, black urban Senator Harold Metts (D, Providence) was standing against the wave as the voice of traditional values and a choir of presumably urban Latinos were singing for the traditionalist cause outside the Senate chambers.

The implications of this fact are larger than could be explained as a few old-school folks among the urban minorities who just haven’t gotten the “right side of history” message, yet.

Disadvantaged communities can see the brand of freedom espoused by relatively wealthy whites who profess to be “fiscally conservative, but socially liberal,” as a license to take away all supports from those who need them most.  Paring back government funding and programs that offer direct support for urban communities, while at the same time taking a sledgehammer to the social supports that help communities and families survive and thrive without government assistance, can sound like a promise of having freedom to drown.

Liberal Republicans shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that the things they like about liberal Democrats are the same things that urban minorities like about liberal Democrats.  The bottom line is that — because of their values or because of the crass requirements of their bases — Republicans will never be able to outbid Democrats for the affections of disadvantaged groups; they have to offer an alternative.  Fortunately, the alternative available to them is both more moral and more powerful and sustainable.

A Tiverton Campaign Finance Answer

Frankly, I’m not a fan of campaign finance regulations, especially at the local level.  If the information’s out there, grassroots groups should use it, but that’s a separate question of whether the government should be able to impose these sorts of rules on the population.

Whom does it serve when people who are politically savvy and well organized (often within the political establishment) can comb through the donations and expenditures records of newcomers who want to serve their communities in public office?  And then there are the fines.

I go into more detail on this topic in a new post on Tiverton Fact Check, in which I answer a resident’s question about why the current Town Council vice president, Denise deMedeiros, has an inactive account on the state’s campaign finance site.  (Basic answer: because the Board of Elections spelled her name differently when she reactivated her account to run for Town Council a few years ago.)

McNamara’s Wrong About Republicans… and the Freedom Index

Last week, the Warwick Beacon reported some local legislators’ results on the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s Freedom Index.  The article bore the bizarre and inaccurate headline, “McNamara debunks legislative scorecard.”

The reference appears to be to the following statement from one of Warwick’s representatives in the General Assembly, Joseph McNamara, who is also the chairman of the State Democratic Committee:

“Their formula is so convoluted, it borders on insanity,” said McNamara, who in addition to being a Warwick/Cranston legislator chairs the State Democratic Committee, when asked about the results.

“They gave lousy ratings to their own Republican colleagues that voted against virtually everything.”

On the first count, the formula is not at all convoluted.  A team of reviewers grades legislation from -3 to 3, the Center gathers up the legislators’ votes (with partial credit for non-votes), and each legislator’s score is his or her percentage of what an “ideal” senator or representative would have scored.

McNamara is also wrong on the second count, in two ways.  First, the Republicans in the General Assembly are not the Center’s “own Republican colleagues.”  The Center is non-partisan; it’s organized around policies, no matter which party or politicians choose to champion those policies.

Second, it’s simply not true that Republicans in the General Assembly “voted against virtually everything.”  The Freedom Index itself is evidence.  Because “nay” votes on bad bills give legislators positive scores, and because the great majority of bills counted in the index were negative, “nay” votes would have produced positive scores for Republicans.

Of course, that’s on the limited number of bills that the Center counted.  For a broader view, we checked with BillTrack50.com, which has automated tracking of events in the legislatures of all 50 states.  

According to the data that BillTrack50 provided, only 5% of all Republican votes were “nay.”  Granted, that was twice as contrary as the Democrats, who voted “nay” only 2.4% of the time, but it’s hardly “virtually everything.”  In fact, it would be more accurate to say that Republicans voted for virtually everything.

If we look at individual legislators, and include votes that they missed, the average Republican voted “nay” only 4.4% of the time, ranging from Senator Dennis Algiere, with 0.9%, to Representative Brian Newberry, with 7.2%.

Rep. McNamara should be more careful with his words, and the Warwick Beacon should be more careful with its headlines.

“Rhode Island Investigative Report”

Somehow the combination of Tim White’s latest investigative report and commentator Mark Steyn’s rendition of Ted Nugent’s “Cat Scratch Fever” drove me to my (out of tune) piano for a little fun.  I give you my new song, “Rhode Island Investigative Report.”  If you’d prefer to spare yourself the recording, lyrics are below.

Rhode Island Investigative Report

They’re at the door, camera on the stairs
Seen this before, I hope that no one cares
They got me, they got me
I guess I gotta take the stand
They got me, they got me
At least I won’t be doing time…
… ’cause it’s Rhode Island

Ain’t really wrong, whatever I have done
I get along, and I’m not the only one
They got me, they got me
Good thing the rules never apply
They got me, they got me
But this ain’t technically a crime…
… and I know a guy

They got this thing about the chumps who pay the bills
I’d say what they really want are scandals for cheap thrills
So let’s get on with this “investigative report”
Put down your iPad, kid, allow me to retort

It’s Warhol’s line, this nightly news routine
I hope that mine’s the best one that you’ve seen
They got me, they got me
Now I’m disabled from tension
They got me, they got me
At least they won’t get my pension…
… ’cause it’s Rhode Island 

Question #4: In-State Employment Rate of URI Engineering Grads Does Not Justify $125 Million Tab for Taxpayers

This Tuesday, Rhode Island taxpayers will be asked if they are willing to pay an eye-opening $125 million, excluding interest, to construct a new building and renovate existing buildings at URI’s College of Engineering. Proponents claim it will improve Rhode Island’s workforce, but how many URI engineers are actually staying to work in the state, right now?

Gee. Wonder Why Some Politicians Support Illegal Immigration and Lax Voting Rules

I had to chuckle at the Powerline headline, “How Many Elections Will Democrats Steal Next Week?“:

How extensive is voter-fraud, especially among non-citizens? Just bring up the question, or suggest we need to have voter-ID at the polls like every other advanced democracy, and the answer will be instantly supplied: You’re a racist. But as Dan McLaughlin points out over at The Federalist, Democrats seem to win a suspiciously high number of close elections, well beyond what a random statistical trial would suggest.

At the internal link, in that quotation, we learn that Democrats have an uncanny ability to win close races.  The Powerline article goes on:

The authors [of an academic study] think that non-citizen votes not only tipped the 2008 Minnesota senate race to Al Franken, but also tipped North Carolina’s presidential vote that year.

The reason I chuckled is that, even as busy and disconnected from some of the election news as I am, I’ve gotten the impression that the Providence mayoral race has picked up an aspect of competing vote fraud schemes.  When a place is as institutionally corrupt as Rhode Island, one gets to ask questions like:  Is it really fraud if stealing more votes is simply another part of the competition?

To be frank, overt fraud is merely one of the ways in which political insiders have arguably made our electoral system invalid in Rhode Island and (to various degrees) across the nation, given the Constitutional guarantee of a “republican form of government,” which above all requires the consent of the governed.  Having just filled out some campaign finance reports in order to put out some signs and print post cards supporting some of my Tiverton neighbors, it’s especially clear to me right now the many ways in which our government discourages participation and limits competition.

That’s the larger, more-fundamental challenge to our democracy, which makes the overt fraud seem like a subset — the last, insurmountable straw for people who might otherwise become politically engaged.

Gina Raimondo and Rhode Island’s Preemptive Surrender to the Threat of Collusion

Gina Raimondo could stand with the people of Rhode Island on the 38 Studios matter and, with her venture capitalist background, could be an especially forceful advocate for the principle that the laws apply to everyone, from big bondholders to regular citizens. Instead, she has chosen to stand with big finance against the people of Rhode Island, taking the cavalier attitude towards representative democracy and the rule of law that has become the hallmark of Rhode Island’s political establishment.