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School Choice Works and Should Expand in Rhode Island

Washington Examiner editorial highlights some evidence that school choice is increasingly likely to become a broadly implemented policy.  Here’s a key piece:

The latest fissures are created by a study of the country’s largest private school choice program. According to researchers, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which provides vouchers, increased college enrollment rates by about 6 percentage points for students who participated at all. For those who were in the program for four or more years, the college enrollment rate was as much as 17 points higher.

Before anyone leaps to suggest that this really just means those schools cream off the best students, opponents of school choice should know that children in the program disproportionately come from families with low incomes and, before joining the program, were mostly at bad public schools and did poorly on tests.

Add in a possible Supreme Court ruling this session that might put new pressures on public sector labor unions (by, again, increasing choice, in this case among workers) and public support for school choice policies, and opportunity may finally come to students who are poorly served by government schools.

As with much else, Rhode Island could be a leader in this area.  The state’s size and population density should make it fertile ground for the growth of schools serving nearly the whole state, with a plethora of options for families no matter where they live.

Evidence that I’ve seen out of Vermont and among Jewish communities (forgive the lack of links on a busy Monday) suggests that people will make decisions about where to live in order to take advantage of school choice.  If Rhode Island really wants to attract innovative companies and capture a “spillover” of the Massachusetts economy, policies that favor people, not special-interest insider groups like teachers unions would do the trick better and with much less waste and corruption than attempting to buy off those companies and people with offers to make them complicit in our state’s corruption.

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Evergreen Contracts One Positive of Special Session

As Ted Nesi reminds us in his weekend roundup, the legislation making municipal labor contracts, including those for teachers, essentially permanent until renegotiated did not overcome Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s veto at this week’s special session of the General Assembly:

The issue has become a game of chicken between the two chambers, with the Senate saying the House needs to vote first because Raimondo vetoed a House bill, but the House saying the Senate first needs to pass its own version and get that vetoed, too. …  a Senate spokesman reiterated that there will be no override unless the House votes. A House spokesman declined to comment, but there’s little indication Speaker Mattiello is inclined to call a vote.

That’s pretty obviously a pair of thin excuses to do the right thing in the face of labor union pressure, but hey, we’ll take it.  The lingering question — as with so much legislation that works its way into law — is why our representatives and senators would pass such horrible legislation to begin with.

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RhodeWorks Signs Bring More Censure from Feds

Rhode Islanders who follow the news can’t help but begin wondering how many times the federal government will have to send letters of complaint against our corrupt and inept state government.  The Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP) is obviously the giant archetype of the problem, but even those blue RhodeWorks signs promoting Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo are an illustration.  Here’s Patrick Anderson in the Providence Journal:

The Federal Highway Administration has found the hundreds of signs scattered over roads and bridges are “not in compliance” with federal traffic regulations, Carlos Machado, Federal Highway’s administrator for Rhode Island, said Wednesday. …

Nancy Singer, a Federal Highway spokeswoman, provided The Journal with the federal regulation at issue in Rhode Island, which does not allow “promotional or other informational signs regarding such matters as identification of public officials, contractors, organizational affiliations, and related logos and symbols.”

Also of interest is that the signs cost an extra $100 each to make and install, bringing the total to $52,000, because the original estimate didn’t include labor costs.  Unionized state employees are both making and installing the signs.

Recall, in this context, that Raimondo’s Director of the Department of Transportation, Peter Alviti, was previously an employee of the Laborers’ International Union (LiUNA).  Shortly after his hiring, Alviti scuttled a hiring plan that called for the state to bring in more design and development employees, as recommended by an expensive outside analysis, and instead hired more laborers.  One effect of the change was that the new hires shifted from a different union to LiUNA.

Recall, also, that Alviti brought some tasks in-house, like road striping, claiming that having more union members on the payroll year round would be less expensive than hiring outside vendors for the part-year work.

Now we are reminded that the DOT has been finding work for its employees making overly political signs for the governor.  At what point does the federal government stop the cease and desist letters and send in the investigators?

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State House Report with John DePetro, No. 26: Resurrected Legislation and the Ghost of Failures Past

For my weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WADK 1540 AM show, last week, the topics were the likelihood of an evergreen veto override, whether the DCYF would haunt Gina, PawSox, DACA, and Rhode Works transparency.

Open post for full audio.

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We Must Require a Definition of “Accountability”

Earlier today, I mentioned Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner’s recent appearance on WPRI’s Newsmakers program and his heavy reliance on buzz phrases and jargon.  One such term — which needn’t be jargon, but can be used that way — was “accountability.”

Wagner’s use of the word came to mind when I read an excerpt on National Review Online of a book by Eva Moskowitz, a former New York City Councilwoman and charter school founder:

While I was already convinced that the district schools weren’t in good shape, preparing for the contract hearings was nonetheless an eye-opener for me. Interviewing principals, superintendents, and teachers helped me understand just how impossible it was for them to succeed given the labor contracts, and how job protections created a vicious cycle. Teachers felt they’ve been dealt an impossible hand: their principal was incompetent or their students were already woefully behind or their textbooks hadn’t arrived or all of the above. They didn’t feel they should be held accountable for failing to do the impossible so they understandably wanted job protections. However, since these job protections made success even harder for principals who were already struggling with other aspects of the system’s dysfunctionality to achieve, they too wanted job protections. Nobody wanted to be held accountable in a dysfunctional system, but the system couldn’t be cured of its dysfunction until everyone was held accountable.

In that context, the question is unavoidable:  What does “accountability” mean?  It must have clear and predictable consequences, or it’s worthless.  As Wagner used the term, “accountability,” one couldn’t be sure what it entailed, suspecting that the idea might rely on the assumption that teachers and administrators would feel guilty about bad results and consider themselves as having been held accountable.  Or maybe the consequence would be a written-more-in-sadness-than-anger letter of disappointment from Department of Education.

Accountability should mean that people lose their jobs or that entire schools are threatened with going out of business because students are going elsewhere.  Unfortunately, that necessity goes against the sine qua non of government employment, which is job security.

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School Repairs and Where the Money Goes

So Democrat Governor of Rhode Island Gina Raimondo wants Rhode Islanders to make a “once-in-a-generation investment” to fix our substandard school buildings, and I can’t help but wonder:  Where is all the money we’re already spending going?

Rhode Island’s public schools need $627.5 million worth of major repairs to simply put students out of harm’s way, according to a major independent study commissioned by state officials.

But it would cost $2.2 billion to bring schools to an ideal condition — buildings that are energy-efficient, offer the right mix of technology and provide plenty of sunlight and fresh air.

The first thing to note is that $2.2 billion isn’t all that much higher (relatively) than the $1.8 billion that the state proclaimed a few years ago.  Suffice to say that it’s a lot of money and that this isn’t a surprise.

But again:  Where is all the money going that we’re already spending?  This whole thing has the feel of a government scam.  The first marker is that, by just about any measure, Rhode Islanders pay a great deal in taxes.  How can that not be enough to cover basic maintenance and improvement of something that’s long been considered a central function.

The second marker that raises questions about this new ask for huge taxpayer expenditures and debt is how we’re coming up with these numbers.  Tiverton, for example, is listed as having $46 million in “deficiency costs,” but the town is already paying off $54 million in debt for construction and repairs.  How did we reach the point of requiring $100 million in school repairs for a district serving about 1,800 students?

Something isn’t right with this whole pitch across the state, and Rhode Islanders should insist that elected officials figure it out before agreeing to put themselves into even more debt.

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Manufacturing Consent to Spend Our Money

The lede of an article by Kathy Gregg, to which the Providence Journal gave the headline, “Emails show rising public support for PawSox stadium subsidies,” ought to discourage all Rhode Islanders who aren’t making a living off of the government:

Roughly two-thirds of the 138 emails sent so far to the Rhode Island Senate expressed support for the proposed $38 million in city and state subsidies to build a new ballpark for the Pawtucket Red Sox.

Is this where we are, now?  Eighty-six emails expressing “at least generally supportive” opinions (some from people who would directly benefit) shows “rising support” and gives a green light to making a million people liable for tens of millions of dollars in debt?  I don’t know that one could find a better illustration of the way political gamesmanship and the news media’s inevitably spotlighted focus generate narratives that lead to substantial public policy decisions at odds with the public interest.

For additional detail on how this process actually works, consider this Facebook post, which Lisa D’Agostino mentions in the Projo’s comment section:

News Update: PawSox Rally at the State House,Thursday September 14th from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. All Thursday night apprentices classes are to report at 5:00 p.m. and sign in with respected instructors. Local 51 T-shirts will be handed out to each member. Also, we our encouraging all journeyman and retirees to please attend the rally in support. Let’s work together.

Apprenticeships, incidentally, are required for people who wish to become plumbers, pipefitters, and HVAC technicians, which the UA Local 51 covers.  I haven’t seen a requirement in the law that apprentices be trained in pressuring government to commit taxpayers to debt, but it wouldn’t surprise me to come across one.

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Details and Consequences in Cranston Fire Department

Don’t let the case of Paul Valletta, one of the most prominent faces of Rhode Island’s firefighter unions slip by without reading some of the details.  Here are some that WJAR’s Parker Gavigan has reported:

[Lt. Scott] Bergantino told police that while other firefighters were participating in the “Fill the Boot” campaign raising money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, he and [Deputy Chief] Valletta got into a heated argument about overtime.

Valletta is also the Cranston fire union president and a state lobbyist for the Rhode Island State Association of Firefighters. Their argument turned physical, said Bergantino, who told detectives Valletta pushed him up against a chalkboard, punched him in the head two times and then threw him over a recliner and onto the floor.

Sleep well, Cranstonites, knowing that this is who responds to your emergencies, and sleep well, Rhode Islanders, knowing these are the state’s insiders, for whose benefit much of our public policy is designed.  Note that the fight started on the subject of overtime, one key ingredient (other than pensions) making firefighting such a lucrative career in Rhode Island.  A quick review of Cranston budgets suggests that the department regularly overspends its overtime budget by around $1.2 million (about 34%).

According to Gavigan, it appears that police have some sort of recording of the incident, and Valletta is currently suspended with pay.  Anybody want to bet against my expectation that Valletta will find himself in a graceful retirement and Bergantino will get a nice bit of time off?

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The Testing Bounce-Around on School Accountability

Readers may have come across news that Rhode Island students’ scores on the PARCC tests remain underwhelming.  This paragraph from Dan McGowan puts it succinctly:

The majority of public school students across Rhode Island still aren’t meeting expectations in math or English, according to the latest round of standardized test scores released Thursday by the R.I. Department of Education.

Of course, the problem is that our education bureaucrats change the test, wholesale, every time they’ve been around long enough to begin pointing toward actual conclusions about actual students.  One needn’t be but so cynical to suspect that the problem with the recently abandoned New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests wasn’t pedagogical, but that they began to allow Rhode Islanders to trace students’ progress (or lack thereof) through enough years of their schooling to begin holding the system accountable.

The best way to resolve that particular institutional friction, of course, is to change the test.  That buys the system a few years of excused “adjustment” and then another four or five years during which the test are acknowledged to be measuring something, but without enough data to draw conclusions.  Then… change the test again.

This post shouldn’t be read as an endorsement of standardized testing as an ideal mechanism for accountability.  Much preferable would be empowering parents to judge which schools will better serve their children and to direct their education resources there by some mechanism that isn’t as intrusive as changing houses.

But there has to be some way for communities to judge how well the schools in their communities are performing, and without a market dynamic, the waters are too easy to muddy.  Parents don’t want to feel as if they’ve made bad decisions for their children, and when the decision is limited to uprooting your entire life and moving, the incentive is to make the best of what you’ve got.

With that framing, the handling of standardized testing is simply an extension of the strategy.  The game is to bamboozle each generation of parents to keep the corrupt union-driven system going.

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San Miguel and Our Education System

Providence Journal reporter Jacqueline Tempera’s use of the term “social justice” might be a red flag to conservative readers, but the San Miguel School is a poster project for school choice:

When Wolf first worked at San Miguel School, in 1997, he said it was a bit like “the wild west.” The teachers, Wolf included, were young and in their first years on the job. The four middle school classrooms at its original Carter Street building would fit into the gymnasium in the current school on Branch Avenue.

“Most young teachers coming into urban core have an intense and great desire to heal all and save the world,” said Wolf, reflecting on his own ideals as a 20-something leading classrooms of at-risk children. “Most of us come to this with open eyes and open hearts so wide you’re a little naive.”

When they aren’t restricted with bureaucratic strings, political mandates, and labor contracts, teachers and schools can focus on their areas of passion and experiment with ways to reach the students who are actually in their classrooms in ways specific to those students.

As I’ve said before, we should think of our society’s education system as all of the ways that we educate our children, not as a franchise of government-branded schools.  And if we understand our education system in that way, then it’s an injustice to discriminate against children and families just because their interests and needs don’t match the mass-production requirements of a regular district school and force them to pay for education twice, once through taxes and once through some other means.

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Center Blasts Newest Truck Toll Tyranny; RIDOT’s Laughable Denial

It has come to light that, on August 11, RIDOT *corrected* requested a hearing, scheduled for today, to issue commercial truck route restrictions within the state. The Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity (for whom I am Communications Manager) has just issued a statement strongly condemning this. It says, in part,

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Cranston’s Disability Pension Funny Factory

This is hilarious… but unfortunately not so hilarious that Rhode Islanders won’t accept it or step up their laughter into a demand for change.  In Cranston, 69% of retired firefighters and 77% of retired police officers in the state municipal pension system have disability pensions, which are meant to provide the additional benefit of a two-thirds-of-salary, tax-free pension in compensation for some disabling injury on the job.

Of course, when the large majority of your employees receive enhanced benefits, they’re no longer “enhanced.”  They’re just the norm.

The funny part comes with Cranston union boss Paul Valletta’s explanation:

What could explain the difference [from other municipalities’ disability percentages]? There are no easy answers, although Cranston fire union chief Paul Valletta suggests that “bad luck” plays a role.

Valetta, readers might recall, was a visible presence in the successful push this legislative session to add “illness,” not just “injury,” to the language allowing a disability pension.  Everybody from the union activists to the Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo, when she courageously let the expansion become law without her signature, has insisted this is a mere correction to an oversight in the law.

That’s laughable.  To see why, consider that the law includes mental incapacity, as well as physical.  Allowing disability pensions for mental illness is clearly something broader than for mental injury.

The task of successful comedy writers — think Seinfeld — is to put characters in zany circumstances that seem like they really could happen.  It isn’t funny if it isn’t at least reasonably plausible with just a mild quirk of the character to make the difference.

The task of successful negotiation con artists is to make their special deals seem plausibly reasonable, with just the minor supernatural intervention of “bad luck” to explain what would otherwise be outrageous.  Bad luck, indeed… for Rhode Islanders.

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Tuition Benefit for a Few

Perhaps the most surprising finding of Ted Nesi and Tim White’s follow-up article on the matter of Frank Montanaro, Jr.’s free college tuition is that only two other Rhode Island College employees have received tuition waivers while on unpaid leave from work in the last decade.  The obvious headline news, however, is that Montanaro received much more and was the only one who needed some sort of special approval.

But documents obtained by Target 12 show Montanaro was in fact the only member of the PSA union who received free tuition while on leave in the past decade, and that he obtained it thanks to a special “administrative authorization” by top college officials. RIC and Montanaro refuse to release the documents showing how the arrangement was structured and who approved it, though they have acknowledged former RIC President Nancy Carriuolo was involved and that the union reached “a negotiated settlement” with RIC over the matter in 2016.

Unfortunately, the key data point isn’t included, and may not be possible to find: namely, how many other employees took leave and were denied the benefit or didn’t even bother applying because they knew they shouldn’t be eligible.  That Montanaro was the only one receiving special permission and one of only three to receive some free tuition while on leave may only tell us that there are few employees who are similarly situated.

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The Union Shoe Drops on Evergreens

Well, here’s perhaps the key political consequence for Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo upon her veto of legislation that would ensure that teachers and municipal employees are exempt from the state law limiting all government employment contracts to three years:

“I think that the classified ad is out: ‘Real Democrat wanted for governor of Rhode Island,”’ Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, said Thursday.

Much of my analysis of likely outcomes has been premised on Walsh’s previous statement that the 2014 election season had convinced his union that unity with Raimondo was important.  The truce has expired, apparently, an result that I expected Raimondo to seek to avoid.

It’s pretty rich, though, for Walsh to break faith with Raimondo and divulge that she mentioned her donors during a private meeting that the two had.  The NEA-RI’s PAC alone hands out $15,000 or more per year to state-level politicians, and that doesn’t count the combined total of every union local giving out money across the state, let alone individual members.

Hopefully Walsh was right a few months ago about the importance to progressives that they stick together.  That way he and Raimondo can both lose.

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Vetoes and Non Vetoes

I’ll admit that I’m surprised that Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo vetoed the eternal contracts bill:

In a veto message that echoed the strenuous arguments raised by city and town leaders, Raimondo wrote: “Current Rhode Island law protects the taxpayers from being obligated indefinitely for contract provisions that, in the future, may not be affordable.

“The proposed legislation before me extinguishes this existing protection, hurting the public’s position in contract negotiations, and placing taxpayers at risk of being forever locked into contractual provisions they can no longer afford.”

Raimondo has seemed to me to make decisions on political grounds, and she’s in a precarious enough position that she can’t really afford to push away the teachers’ unions, which have been explicit about not intending to target her next time around.  This action could change that.

It’ll be telling to watch the political play.  If, for example, the General Assembly overrides the veto and the teachers’ unions (especially the National Education Association – Rhode Island) do nothing more than issue a strongly worded press release against the governor (which is already done), then it would indicate that there’s a political dance going on, meant to give the governor cover with taxpayer advocates and municipal leaders while not harming the unions.

As part of this picture, note that Raimondo “allowed a disability-pension bill that was also championed by organized labor to become law without her signature,” according to Kathy Gregg.  Here the calculation is slightly different.  She didn’t sign it, thereby providing herself a little cover with taxpayer advocates (being able to say she didn’t “support” it), but she didn’t veto it, saying it was simply a legal codification of existing practice.  I think she’ll be proven wrong on that, inasmuch as the law now explicitly allows for work-related physical and mental illnesses to be grounds for a disability pension, but one could see how her calculation would be different.

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Montanaro Investigation… Well, That Was Quick

I mentioned, yesterday, that John DePetro had different expectations for the likely outcome of the State Police investigation of state employee and labor-union prince Frank Montanaro, Jr., and his receipt of a college-tuition benefit to which he was dubiously entitled.  Existence of the investigation came to light early this week, with the subject having been interviewed on Friday.

Well, Tim White and Ted Nesi published this yesterday afternoon:

Just a day after confirming the investigation, the Rhode Island State Police said Tuesday they have completed their examination of a top State House staffer who got about $50,000 in free tuition, and forwarded their findings to the attorney general.

What might a quick resolution of the investigation mean?  It would seem that a law was either obviously broken or the State Police have passed along the nothing-to-see-here conclusion that I predicted.

We’ll see.

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