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Public-Options-Only School Choice Relies on Irrational Prejudice

Notice anything about the recent op-ed from RI Education Commissioner Ken Wagner?

Some claim that charters take money that is owed to district schools. In my view, the money is not “owed” to district schools or any other education provider. Local, state and national taxpayers raised this money for a specific purpose: to educate the youth of a community. We have an obligation to ensure the money serves the children rather than simply maintains the current system.

This is the core of the argument that I’ve been proffering for total school choice.  Public dollars aren’t collected and expended for the maintenance of a government-branded school system, but for the cause of educating the public.  Whatever structure or method will accomplish that goal most effectively and economically is the proper one.

Indeed, just about every argument in Wagner’s essay would apply to education savings accounts (ESAs), vouchers, or any other school choice vehicle and could be added to the Bright Today list of myths.

It is only through the devotion of insiders to the status quo and their control of public information that this point remains sufficiently obscure that Wagner doesn’t feel he has to address it.  The people are starting to figure it out, though, and it is yet another area in which those of us who really wish to move Rhode Island forward for the benefit of its people need only guide their natural conclusions.

Consider Dan McGowan’s WPRI article on public testimony regarding the Achievement First charter school expansion proposal before the state Council on Elementary and Secondary Education.  The article is 17 paragraphs long.  Here’s the 13th:

But the majority of individuals who testified about Achievement First Tuesday encouraged the council to back the expansion.

That is, after 12 paragraphs — three-quarters of the article — conveying the points of view of insiders, who are in the minority, McGowan finally gets to what should arguably have been the headline of the article: that people want school choice.  When all is said, the only argument to prevent the people from using public funds for their preferred public policy is maintenance of the government plantation.

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And So Begins a New Phase of Paid Agitation

Rarely does one see such open racism in the pages of the Providence Journal — and never without implicit condemnation — as appears in today’s article about anti-Trump agitators in the streets of Providence:

“When we look at how the vote played out on Tuesday we saw white people betraying the working class,” [Mike Araujo, executive director of Rhode Island Jobs With Justice] said.

White people betrayed the working class?  Asking how this works, given Trump’s support among the white working class would be an overly intellectual response to what is nothing more than propaganda to cause tension in our society.

Araujo’s are racist words of civil war, and yet the local news media will continue to treat him as if he’s just a well-meaning advocate essentially participating in a charitable activity.  Indeed, the article spins the militant demonstration — with disaffected young adults chanting “not my president” — as “Facebook driven,” but one suspects any use of Facebook was incidental to the organization of the event.  (Even the small, hyper-local yoga pants march took days to coordinate, and that wasn’t nationwide, as this one was.)

Reporter, Mark Reynolds, pulls up short, merely characterizing Araujo as “the chief speaker at the event — the person with the megaphone,” but he doesn’t offer any information about his group, Rhode Island Jobs With Justice.  Araujo became the executive director of the registered non-profit “Rhode Island Jobs With Justice Education Fund” in May.  The previous director, Jesse Strecker, was paid around $42,000 per year in salary and other compensation as the organization’s only listed employee.  (I haven’t expanded my search to see whether these activists receive additional income from other related sources.)

The group’s funding source appears mainly to be labor unions, and the activities that taxpayers subsidize by treating it as a non-profit appear to be limited to political advocacy.  In the current case, it is actively fomenting discord and division in the United States.

Politicians at the top of this pyramid, like Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama, get to call for unity while their shock troops on the ground march around with racist words of division and hatred.  No doubt, the calls for unity at the top will last until a convenient moment, and then the leaders of the movement will declare some action or statement of Trump’s simply beyond the pale and thereby unleash another level of disruption and violence from the paid troops.

Meanwhile, the media will cover it all as just the simple expression of concern about the evil of the other side.

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Here’s How a Unionized Workforce Teaches Your Children (Warwick Example)

This sort of news never ceases to blow my mind, leaving me unable to understand how parents can stand for this sort of environment for their children’s education:

The implementation of electronic grading in the [Warwick] district has become a bargaining chip as the union and the School Committee continue to be locked in a contract dispute. …

Citing several other emails, Ahearn said parents would not speak publicly about the issue for fear that their children could face retaliation from teachers.

If the cost or other concerns keep the district away from online grading, that’s one thing, but for the district not to be able to fully use a system for which it is already paying $180,000 is outrageous.  Apply this same ridiculous standard across the educational board, and you’ll have a sense of why Rhode Island schools are struggling.  Add in the district’s chronic absenteeism, and the picture fills in as to why it’s so desperate to close down schools to keep pace with declining enrollment.

Of course, as Larry Sand notes while pointing out some WikiLeaks evidence that the National Education Association worked with the Democrat Party to undermine presidential endorsement votes, teachers don’t have much of a choice when it comes to their quote-unquote representation.

This arrangement isn’t advisable for any professional environment, but in a system meant to teach children, it’s simply unconscionable.  Teachers unions are top-down schemes to pay left-wing activists big bucks with taxpayer dollars so they coordinate with political operatives while manipulating education in a way that will radically change society.

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RI Education Priority: Labor Unions

Here’s a telling bit of information from Linda Borg’s Providence Journal article on new federal law related to public school improvement:

The revised law also eliminates a contentious part of teacher evaluations. NCLB [No Child Left Behind] required that teacher evaluations include student improvement over time, based on test scores. Rhode Island never implemented this part of the law after considerable push-back from teachers and unions.

Let that one data point act as a stand-in for Rhode Island public education generally.  Why are results stagnant or deteriorating?  Because teachers and unions won’t let them improve unless it can be done without harming their financial and political advantages.  Simple as that.  And now, the federal government has nationalized that principle.  Consider:

Now, school districts will be asked to look at such issues as how districts are retaining teachers and recruiting minority candidates, Snider said.

Judgment of schools will not be based on whether they are producing measurable effects for their students, but whether they are making their teachers happy and pursuing progressive social re-engineering.  Nationally, now, the most important thing about public education is not actually education, but benefits for an adult political constituency.  That’s a travesty, and it has been a travesty in Rhode Island for decades.

 

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Stop the Pre-K Union Giveaway

Via Gary Sasse’s Twitter stream comes a post from the left-wing Brookings Institution suggesting that the evidence is mounting that universal pre-K may not only do no measurable good, but might actually do harm:

By the end of kindergarten, the achievement test boost for treatment group children in the consenting subsample [who had been in a government pre-K program] had disappeared. By the end of first grade, teachers rated the same children’s work skills and preparation as weaker than the control group; the effects reversed. By the end of second and third grade, control group children did better on academic tests than treatment group children.

As always, the question is why.  In this case, the study’s authors, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Ron Haskins, speculate that pre-K might make kids just too darn prepared for school, so they get bored or otherwise distracted when mixed with children who aren’t as well prepared.  In June, another study put forward the alternative speculation that the organized pre-K is actually worse for a significant portion of students than the alternative care that they would have received from parents, grandparents, or some other care provider who’s in it for the relationship.

Maybe the answer is some blend of the two.  It wouldn’t exactly be surprising if the best education for children at very early ages is extensive interaction with people who love them and mildly guided free play, which then becomes gradually more focused on learning as they progress through kindergarten and elementary school.  The pre-K kids might do better early on in kindergarten because they’re already trained in the basic classroom techniques that kindergarten teaches, but once the non-pre-K kids pick up those simple skills, their own developmental advantages begin to make the difference.  Or maybe it has more to do with parents, who’ve begun the natural emotional separation earlier.

Whatever the answer turns out to be, perhaps we should consider the possibility that this is an area too individual and personal to families for government to be meddling.  Of course, that would put an end to public-sector labor unions’ push for more government-mandated members.

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Do Warwick Schools Operate with Sickouts Every Day?

It’s good to read, this morning, that Warwick’s public school teachers didn’t contribute to the recent wave of thuggishness in Rhode Island by having an organized sick-out over the disinclination of the school department to keep giving them more and more money to teach fewer and fewer students.  But then Paul Edward Parker’s article reports:

Eighty-three teachers have called in sick, according to Catherine Bonang, secretary to Superintendent Philip Thornton.

On an average day, the number of teacher absences runs in the 60s, Bonang said. The school system has about 840 teachers.

What?  On a typical school day, one in thirteen teachers is absent?  That’s between 7.1 and 8.3%!  According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average absenteeism in America is 2.9%.  (It’s 2.7% in the private sector and 3.5% among government employees, which is a 30% difference.)

Granted, the BLS data excludes vacations, personal days, and a few other reasons people miss work, while the Warwick secretary may or may not be including such absences in her rough number.  On the other hand, we also have to consider that there are only around 180 school days in the year to begin with.

Whatever the case, should it sit well with the taxpayers and parents of Warwick that their public school teachers are so often not in the classroom?

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What We’re Buying with “Spending on Education”

In a brief post last week, the American Interest suggested that America’s increases in education spending aren’t really going toward increasing services for students:

Campaigns to increase spending on schools are always popular, and understandably so: Education ought to be a great equalizing force in our society and, in theory, an efficient way to invest in the future. The problem is that in many states, new “K-12 spending” isn’t really an investment so much as a transfer payment to retired employees of the public schools who have been promised untenable lifetime pension benefits.

I think that net’s a bit too small.  Mainly, “investments” in education are simply transfer payments to unionized teachers with lots of professional incentive to advocate for better pay and benefits and limited professional incentive to advance the actual cause of education.*  Our system creates a large funding stream for labor advocates and political agents who are actually harmed to the extent that teachers are valued for success in their vocation (because then who needs labor advocates?) but who profit by building a cult of members who focus on the victimization inherent in anybody suggesting they shouldn’t get even better pay for the unacceptable results of the system overall.

This isn’t exactly difficult to understand or to predict.  Students’ advocates are families, whose interests are narrowly targeted toward their own members and whose resources of money and time are limited, perhaps with some legitimate non-profits who have to rely on shoestring budgets collected from donors.  Advocates for teachers, as workers, get an easy funding stream directly from taxpayers and have a vast professional organization paid for with those funds.

That professional organization has, in its own interest, developed deep ties and alliances with political actors and bureaucrats and invests those resources not paid to its own employees toward putting people in public office who will tilt laws in their favor and negotiate specific contracts in a compliant way.  When it comes to it, union organizers will admit as much.

For as long as this is the case, “investing” more money “in education” only makes matters worse, as the increased tax burden gives families even fewer resources and less time to devote to advocating for their own children.

 

* Note that I used the term “professional incentive” to indicate the systematic incentive that is separate from teachers’ personal sense of responsibility and vocation.

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Drama at RIC: Another Way to Steal from Taxpayers?

The Providence Journal’s Jacqueline Tempera reported, the other day, on another way in which state employees of Rhode Island can potentially steal from taxpayers:

The managing director of the theater at Rhode Island College has been arrested after he allegedly stole more than $60,000 from the college over three years, state police said Friday. 

An investigation by the state police’s Financial Crimes Unit determined that James L. Taylor, 46, of Johnston, had been requesting checks from the accounting department “under false pretenses” and depositing them into his personal bank account.

Hot on the heals of the reported conspiracy to defraud the unemployment insurance office, this latest arrest isn’t making state employees look so hot.  Mix in the recent “quiet time” shifts in the Tiverton police department, and the entire Rhode Island public sector comes into question.

I do have to say I feel a bit for these workaday employees.  I mean, the really connected folks just get bonds, tax credits, and other means of handing out taxpayer dollars in sums way above what ordinary folks can steal, and it’s all completely legal.  When it isn’t legal, they get friendly officials in the attorney general’s office and even the state police to slow-roll and cover up.

Of course, I should note that Tiverton’s last employee caught up in a scandal of stealing from local taxpayers got away with a graceful retirement — and even the accrued sick-time he didn’t use because, it appears, he was just doing his side work on the clock.  Elected officials don’t want the expensive and embarrassing lawsuits, so it’s not like the workaday employees always get their comeuppance.

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Rhode Island’s Agent of Indecision

Anybody else wonder why Linda Borg’s front-page article, in yesterday’s Providence Journal, comparing Rhode Island’s abandoned education reform with Massachusetts’s forward march, didn’t mention former Independent-to-Democrat Governor Lincoln Chafee once?  He was the single-most-responsible party for Rhode Island’s policy reversal and the resulting halt of improvements.  Another way to put it would be that he was the teachers unions’ tool for achieving that reversal and halt.

Given Curt Schilling’s op-ed broadside against Chafee on the 38 Studios debacle, also in yesterday’s paper, it would have made a strong statement, indeed, for readers to have been given reason to consider the former governor’s effect on education, as well.  It also would have provided some food for thought with respect to Massachusetts’s now-“stagnant” test scores, as Borg puts it, because Democrat Deval Patrick played much the same role during his time as governor.

Of course, giving Chafee his shameful due on education would also have raised questions about how he achieved his office.  And that might have undermined the pro-Raimondo section with which Borg closed out her article.  After all, the new Democrat governor — whom Borg credits with bringing “a fresh approach” — achieved office in much the same way as her predecessor: with multiple candidates splitting the vote and preventing the election of anybody with a clear majority.

ADDENDUM:

This post wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t raise the front-page graphic’s insistence that another $432 per student somehow makes the difference between Massachusetts’s first-place test results and Rhode Island’s merely average performance.  When last I looked at these numbers, Massachusetts’s per-pupil spending was seventh in the nation, while Rhode Island’s was eighth.  Anybody who’s looking for an explanation of the differences in our results can safely put the funding differences to the side.

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Anti-Tolling Rally Tomorrow!

At the truck stop in West Greenwich off Route 95: 849 Victory Highway, West Greenwich, RI 02817. Tuesday, October 18, at 11:00 am. (No question, a bit of a tough time of day for a lot of us working folks.)

The Rhode Island Trucking Association and NATSO, the national association representing travel plazas and truckstops, announced today that they will host an informational rally and press conference Oct. 18 to discuss the devastating effects that “RhodeWorks” — the Rhode Island Department of Transportation’s truck-only tolling plan — will have on local businesses and commercial truck drivers that operate within the state of Rhode Island.

The small group of state officials advocating for truck tolls say that they are necessary because the money to repair our bridges cannot be found within the budget. Like most of the data and talking points that accompanied the passage of truck-only tolls, this is a flat-out lie. This money can be found in the budget. Remember also that, under Governor Gina Raimondo’s highly destructive RhodeWorks toll plan, shepherded through the General Assembly by a flip-flopping Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, hundreds of millions of dollars would be completely squandered on items other than bridge repairs: gantries, toll fees, interest – meaning that hundreds of millions of dollars would be coming out of the pockets of truckers and all Rhode Islanders and going down a rat hole rather than into infrastructure repair.

Adding urgency and danger to the situation, a recent federal court ruling in New York has brought tolls on cars in Rhode Island one giant step closer. As WPRO’s John Loughlin correctly pointed out on air Saturday morning, this is almost certainly why the start of work on the 6/10 Connector was rushed. Governor Raimondo and her organized labor supporters want to be sure to sink their toll claws into the state as quickly as possible by getting projects hooked on this destructive new revenue source ahead of a court ruling. (“Oh darn. The courts ruled that we can’t toll just trucks. We have no choice but to toll cars because look at all of the borrowing and construction that we rushed through … er, that is now underway.”)

In addition to the big red flag of the federal court ruling in New York, it is important to note that no other state tolls only trucks. From the beginning, this posed an enormous constitutional flaw in the RhodeWorks toll law. (For more on this, check out Rep Blake Filippi’s excellent op-ed in Thursday’s Providence Journal.) Accordingly, any state leader or legislator who voted for truck tolls in February took the unnecessary and very dangerous step of inviting the toll vampire into all of our homes. If state leaders don’t wise up and rescind truck tolls, it is now just about impossible to envision a scenario by which the toll vampire doesn’t turn to feast on the blood … er, wallets of car owners. It is critical, therefore, that state legislators who voted for tolls be held accountable. Please go here to see how General Assembly incumbents voted on tolls, where their challengers stand on the matter and vote for the candidate who did NOT invite the toll vampire to Rhode Island.

And if you’re able to get away from work for an hour tomorrow, please also stop by this rally. Garlic is optional. But your presence at the rally and, especially, your anti-toll vote on November 8, would send an important message against the toll vampire.

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Lessons on Teaching

I was going to put up a post about a data source I came across today with lots of historical information on unionization in the United States, which puts Rhode Island as the fourth-most-unionized state, when it comes to the government sector, just barely behind Massachusetts.  A big majority of government workers (63.2%) in Rhode Island are covered by unions.  If Rhode Island is like the country, overall, about half of government workers work for local governments, about a third, the state, and the rest the feds.

But let’s close out the blogging week on an empathetic note.  Faith Moore is correct about “3 Understandable (But Untrue) Assumptions About Teachers“:

  1. Teachers have tons of free time
  2. Because I went to school, I could teach as well as the teacher
  3. Maintaining order in the classroom is easy, anyone could do it

As the husband of a teacher who has had the opportunity to give it a try, I found these all true, although footnotes are needed.  Some teachers do structure their classes and conduct their teaching in way that requires minimal work, although even then, it probably takes them a while to get to that point, and a case-by-case assessment would be necessary prior to criticism.  On the third point, obviously the students play a large role in just how difficult it is.

The second one may be the most surprising in actual experience, and not just because teaching is a process distinct from the subject matter.  Moore writes that a teacher “needs to know how to teach that material to someone who’s never even heard of it before.”  I don’t think most people, even parents, understand just how surprising it can be when something isn’t obvious to a child.  (For one thing, parental interaction with children doesn’t generally include as many areas of abstraction or topics that might have no immediately obvious application.)

Now multiply that times a classroom full of students who will not-understand different things, or not-understand the same thing in different ways.

Obviously, it doesn’t immediately follow that these truths entitle unionized public school teachers to the maximum amount of money that can be wrung out of taxpayers, indicate that they are underpaid at this time in this state, or make the unionized structure (including, among other things, rigid step scales for all teachers) suitable to education.  But it’s too easy for progressives and unionists to get us into an us versus them mindset that encourages both sides to stop realistically assessing each other for positives and negatives as human beings.

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Profit Versus Public Service

Here’s an interesting conversation between somebody who manages public parks via a private-sector contract and a park ranger (via Instapundit):

Ranger:  I think it’s wrong that you make a profit on public lands

Me:  So you work for free?

Ranger:  Huh?

Me:  If you think it’s wrong to make money on public lands, I assume you must volunteer, else you too would be making money on public lands

Ranger:  No, of course I get paid.

Me:  Well, I know what I make for profit in your District, and I have a good guess what your salary probably is, and I can assure you that you make at least twice as much as me on these public lands.

Ranger:  But that is totally different.

I’ve periodically written about this general faith among government employees and their big-government sympathizers that “public service” is more akin to a higher calling for which one is compensated because it is just such an honorable thing to do.  To some degree, the sentiment is part of the mythology that enables labor unions and progressives to turn their supporters into a sort of cult.

Government union members must implicitly believe that they are sacrificing something, or else they would have to admit that their unions’ activities are wholly inappropriate, bordering on extortion and theft.  This may not have been the case, at one point, but we’re well beyond its being undeniable.  Similarly, progressives must implicitly believe that their motives are pure and non-ideological, or else they have no basis for asserting their vision of “progress” as objective or for offering their judgment as a better guide for the centralized plans that form their political philosophy.

In narrow cases, as in the conversation above, the dispute will likely be worked out over time, as private contracting becomes a larger and larger part of government activity (for better and worse).  When it comes to the progressive movement toward an ever-broader scope of centralized government activity, on the other hand, there may be no cure but to crash and rebuild.

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Police Union Contract Facilitates Tiverton “Quiet Time” Non-Patrols

This post from yesterday calls the practice among Tiverton police of having a three-hour period in the early morning during which they would sleep “systemic abuse.”  The fact that, as Tim White reports, multiple officers participated in this “quiet time” with the approval of a superior proves the point.  However, the characterization is true for a more institutional reason.

The collective bargaining agreement (PDF) between International Brotherhood of Police Officers local #406 and the Town of Tiverton requires the town to have at least three “regular permanent police officers on duty at all times for patrols.”  During a period of the day when the officers themselves, including the lieutenant on duty, apparently see no need for any patrols — or even wakeful officers — the union’s contract requires the town to pay three of them.

The three hours of “quiet time” therefore equate to nine man hours every day; that’s 63 per week and 3,285 per year.  For comparison, working four eight hour shifts on a six-day cycle, as described in the contract, adds up to 1,947 hours.  According to Tiverton Fact Check’s online payroll application, regular pay for most officers (not including overtime and other pay) ranged from around $45,000 to around $60,000 in fiscal year 2015.

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Conclusions from Evidence in RI Science Scores

Is there anything about the science scores released by the state Dept. of Education yesterday that ought to give Rhode Islanders confidence that state and local governments are capable of improving public education or to give parents confidence that spending money on private school is not a moral obligation if at all feasible?  The state’s primary excuse is more of an admission that its foolish behavior is structural, not incidental:

In 2013, Rhode Island adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, developed by a consortium of 26 states and several science-education groups, which ask students to think like a scientist and call for more hands-on, investigative work. But the NECAP is much more focused on subject matter, so the test no longer reflects what students are learning in the classroom.

Some skepticism is justified, inasmuch as science lessons at that level of education ought to be broadly applicable, not narrowly tailored toward a specific test.  (Ultimately, we don’t pursue education simply to be able to score well on a test.)  But even putting that aside, what could possibly be the rationale for wasting time on tests that students are not expected to be able to pass?

The state’s second excuse edges into a much broader problem that nobody in public education wants to discuss:

[State Education Commissioner Ken] Wagner said there is another reason why students perform worse in high school. Research has shown that it’s much harder to retain good science teachers in high school, particularly in urban districts, because of the challenges posed by urban classrooms and because jobs are much more lucrative in the private sector.

For the benefit of special-interest labor unions, local, state, and federal elected officials and bureaucrats have allowed us to force our education system to handle employees in a way that is wholly inappropriate to an environment requiring teachers of varying skill levels to address the needs of students from early childhood to young adulthood across multiple capabilities and a large variety of subjects.  Some districts do have agreements with their unions to allow some pay difference between, say, a kindergarten teacher and high school teacher in possession of highly valuable scientific knowledge, but the cost to taxpayers isn’t part of that equation.

That is, we’re not permitted to adjust payroll; the system won’t allow, say, a district hiring both a kindergarten teacher and a high school science teacher to reduce the salary for the former in order to increase the offer for the latter.

Wagner claims that these science scores “call for urgency,” but if government agents really believed that, they’d admit that urgency would not allow for another lost decade spent denying that public education as it’s developed simply cannot perform the function that we say we want it to perform.

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Union Dislike for the Ethics Commission’s Independence

Here’s an interesting commentary by National Education Association Rhode Island honcho Robert Walsh on the proposed constitutional amendment in Rhode Island to give the Ethics Commission authority over the General Assembly, as highlighted on Twitter by local progressive Sam Bell:

… ever since the Ethics Commission tried to stop any Union MEMBER for voting on any issue related to unions the potential for mischief was clear.  An unelected 4th branch of government that makes regulations, enforces them, hears violations, and renders judgement? A constitutional abomination.

My gut inclination is to agree with Walsh on the Ethics Commission.  My own disenchantment came when the commission ruled, essentially, that government employment can never be considered a corruptible activity itself.  If a town solicitor, for example, plays both sides of a trial when a business associate or family member is brought up on some sort of violation before the city or town that he or she serves, then that’s corrupt, but if the business associate is another government employee abusing his or her position, then that’s perfectly fine.

But the peculiarity comes in the fact that government of the progressive, union-dominated type that Walsh prefers is practically built upon unelected agencies making regulations, enforcing them, hearing them as judges, and imposing consequences.  The Dept. of Education does this.  The Labor Relations Board does, too, as does the Department of Labor and Training and probably every single agency, in its own capacity.  This isn’t a problem for progressives; it’s the plan.

That leads me to suspect that Walsh’s real problem with the Ethics Commission is that its makeup and structure may allow it to make decisions from time to time in ways that go against the system that RI insiders prefer.  That’s almost enough to make me a modestly enthusiastic, rather than tepid, supporter of the amendment.

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Tiverton Finds the Source Behind Strange Overtime Numbers

In 2014, Tiverton Fact Check noted that the second-highest-paid employee in town was Police Lieutenant Timothy Panell.  In fact, our transparency application shows that he was the second-highest-paid employee for three of the four years for which we have data (we don’t yet have fiscal year 2016), and third highest for the other year, all of them over $100,000.  Over those four years, overtime averaged about 30% of Officer Panell’s total pay, but it was around 40% for the two most recent years.

It is therefore not surprising, although still disappointing, to see Tim White of WPRI reporting that Panell has been charged with 58 counts of stealing overtime pay.

Continue reading on Tiverton Fact Check.

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Warwick and RI Can’t Be Generous While Shrinking

The Warwick school department is considering closing up to three schools, and predictably, people aren’t happy about it:

So far, the city has fielded complaints of traffic jams, unfinished construction projects and overcrowding at Warwick’s high schools.

And in an excellent civics lesson, democracy is producing candidates implying they’ll make all the problems go away if elected:

School committee candidate Dean Johnson said he lives nearby and sees the problems every day.

“Nothing but traffic,” he said. “It was 15 minutes from Benny’s to Pilgrim – it was absolutely ridiculous.”

Fellow school committee candidate Nathan Cornell is just 18 years old and said he still has friends in high school.

“At the first day, I called them and say, ‘how was school for you,’” he said. “And they told me it was crowded, especially the lunchrooms.”

Rhode Islanders want to run things as if the state is economically healthy and growing.  It’s not.  When I looked at Warwick’s population in 2012, it had dropped nearly 4% from the 2000 Census to the 2010 Census.  This May, I wondered how the school department could be considering any raises at all (let alone the 10% per year the teachers union reportedly wanted) with a smaller, less-working population with shrunken house values, and what justification there could be when the under-performing district had seen its enrollment drop 34% since the 2000-2001 school year.

Look, if you want neighborhood schools, you need the population and the enrollment to support them.  If you want small class sizes, you need to control the costs of teachers.  Rhode Islanders can’t keep up the economy-strangling approach to government and the union-gorging approach to employees and expect to maintain the quality of life they’ve enjoyed.  It is not paradoxical to observe that when you let government take more money from you and your neighbors and to limit your freedoms, you wind up getting less from government.

What will it take to make Rhode Islanders realize this?  Or more precisely, what will it take to make Rhode Islanders realize this and then change things rather than simply move away?

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A Tale of Clashing Intra-Boomer Greed

Essays by Joel Kotkin are often frustrating.  On one hand, he’s clearly more reasonable than the typical mainstream liberal and willing to consider evidence even if it leads him to conclusions that conflict with the standard liberal line.  On the other hand, he pulls up sharply short of following his thinking all the way through.  Consider this, from a column attacking Baby Boomers for their role in constructing the civic society that has produced our terrible presidential choices:

Trumpian boomerism is easily evidenced in my own neighborhood of Villa Park in Orange County. Our lovely, well-maintained and aging little enclave is friendly, civic-minded and civil. But it also is the center of opposition to such things as school bonds that would improve local schools now in a shocking state of disrepair. Villa Park residents helped defeat the last school bond, and it’s a former (thank heaven) City Council member who seeks to lead the effort to overturn the one on the ballot this year.

The arguments of the anti-bond advocates, like those backing Trump, base their pitch on accusations of public incompetence but rest on a culture of selfishness. Many opposing the bonds, which would cost them a few hundred dollars a year on their property tax bill, think nothing of spending lavishly on luxury vacations or home upgrades. The fact that better schools might increase their own property values seems to sail against their mind-set, which apparently renders them oblivious to the penury imposed on the next generation.

Kotkin seems not to consider that bonds typically require higher tax bills for 20 to 30 years.  Boomers are more likely to have purchased their homes when property values were much lower (even if only 15 years ago), and they are more likely to have finished paying off their mortgages; they’re also farther along in their careers and wealthier.  “A few hundred dollars a year on their property tax bill” is therefore not as big a deal to them as it is to those in Gen X who may be struggling to get on the other side of life’s financial hump or Millennials looking to buy houses (or even rent them) for the first time.  Long-term debt will also affect whatever generation comes after today’s kids in the same way.

In fairness, it’s entirely possible that Boomers in Kotkin’s suburb of (typically liberal) coastal California haven’t thought this through, either, and are, indeed, acting out of greed.  But even if we cede that point, we still must challenge his assumption that more money will improve education.  The same teacher unions that have helped to diminish public education in the United States have spent decades driving up the cost, pushing taxpayers toward antipathy to new expenses and forcing administrators to cut corners when it comes to maintenance and capital improvement.

That is, to the extent greed is involved, it is in no way one sided.

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The Familiar Rhode Island Disability Pension Story

Ethan Shorey reports on an investigation that the town of North Providence conducted of a retired firefighter who appears to be very active in his disabled retirement:

A months-long investigation by the North Providence Police Department shows a former firefighter who won a disability pension three years ago doing manual labor “without restrictions,” according to a police report.

The investigation by Special Investigations Unit Det. Robert Difilippo ran from November of last year to March of this year. It shows disabled firefighter Stephen Campbell shoveling snow in a storm, putting up and taking down Christmas decorations, carrying luggage, and dragging trash barrels, among other activities at his 100 Cleveland St. home.

The chronology of Campbell’s career has a very familiar feel to Rhode Islanders, which makes the whole affair seem (sadly) unsurprising.  Here are some facts from Shorey’s article put in chronological order:

  • Campbell was a one-time volunteer firefighter.
  • At age 48, he put himself on the North Providence waiting list for a job.
  • Former Mayor Ralph Mollis hired Campbell when the applicant was 52, saying it would be “age discrimination” to pass him over.
  • During his first 10 years on the job, Campbell was out of work on injured on duty leave for almost half of his working time.
  • After that decade, a lieutenant took the day off, leaving Campbell to fill his role, and midway through the day, Campbell re-injured his hand (“picking up a small bag,” according to the town’s labor attorney), thus boosting his potential pension $4,000 per year.
  • The state Retirement Board granted Campbell’s disability pension, providing two-thirds of the higher salary, tax free, along with continued benefits.

Now, maybe Campbell’s recent behavior proves he isn’t sufficiently disabled, under the law, or maybe it doesn’t.  Rhode Islanders are also used to discovering that state law is written in a way that legitimizes behavior that seems like it ought to be illegal, especially when it comes to labor unions and government employees.  Whatever the technicalities, though, his story is an unequivocal example of why it’s very difficult not to feel taken advantage of in the Ocean State.

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Rhode Island Admits Its Diplomas Are Meaningless

Articles on Rhode Island’s education system have become downright depressing.  Here’s Education Commissioner Ken Wagner essentially admitting that his office sees diplomas from the state’s public schools as meaningless pieces of paper designating satisfactory attendance:

Wagner, who arrived here a year ago, defended his decision to drop a standardized test from the high school graduation requirements. He said it doesn’t make sense to punish students for poor test scores when “it is just as likely that they weren’t adequately prepared” by their schools and teachers.

“When kids don’t graduate, it has lifelong consequences,” he said. 

Wagner wants to hold school districts, not students , accountable for improving student achievement….

Starting in 2021, Rhode Island will offer a “commissioner’s seal” for high school students who meet proficiency on a standardized test like the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Career. Instead of evaluating districts based on student test scores, the state Department of Education could judge districts based on the percentage of graduates who earn a commissioner’s seal.

Wagner’s thinking is all wrong.  Rhode Island Association of School Committees Director Tim Duffy is right that “we’re not doing students any favors by not preparing them for college or work,” but it’s more than that.  A diploma is supposed to be an achievement, not a participation trophy.  We’re supposed to hold students accountable, and moreover, they ought to be the first link in a chain of accountability:

  • If students aren’t succeeding, parents are responsible for resolving whatever problems are getting in their way.
  • If parents conclude that the school is the problem, then they hold the school accountable by seeking correction or leaving.
  • If the schools aren’t performing, then it’s the responsibility of the community that pays the bills to hold elected officials and administrators accountable.

The Dept. of Education’s role should be to facilitate this process, not to supplant it.  Otherwise, the state government is presuming to take on the role not only of every school’s administration, but also the roles of parents and of voters.  The childless commissioner’s apparent fondness for calling children who are students in pubic schools “kids” is not a good sign for the department’s perspective on those young Rhode Islanders.  (“A kid’ll eat ivy, too,” after all.)

The ideal reform would be to empower students and parents to hold districts accountable more directly, but allowing them to apply money that would otherwise to go the district to an alternative, like a private school. Until that option becomes feasible, though, the incentive for parents and students to complain has to be stronger.

The bottom line on Wagner’s ploy is that the people who are the most insulated from accountability — the unionized teachers — have a controlling hand in the state government.  The state, therefore, cannot be trusted to “judge districts” and take appropriate action.

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Bike Paths, Lights, Sustainability – RhodeWorks Tolls Turn into Huge Bait-And-Switch

Am I going crazy? (Don’t answer that!) Didn’t Governor Gina Raimondo sell us on her unnecessary and highly destructive RhodeWorks toll plan by saying that the money would go to repair our very unsafe (oh so unsafe; most unsafe in this quadrant of the galaxy) bridges? But look at this RhodeWorks Quarterly Report!

Bike paths, lights, guardrails, road re-paving, something called “I-95 Sustainability” – RhodeWorks is being spent on all kinds of projects, not just bridge repair. Remarkably, there is even a RIDOT sign that CONFIRMS money from the RhodeWorks/Toll Project is being spent on a bike path!

What the heck??? Tolls were supposed to go to our unsafe bridges! Where did all of these other projects come from?

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Belling the Taxpayer Cat

In Aesop’s fable about the council of mice, a colony of murines gets together to figure out what to do about the household cat, which is obviously an impediment to their comfort and happiness.  A young mouse suggests that they place a bell around the feline’s neck, and then they will always have warning as it approaches.  The council agrees that it is a brilliant idea until an old mouse hobbles forward and asks who is going to bell the cat.

We can safely assume that Aesop did not have public-sector pensions in mind when he wrote his fable some two-and-a-half millennia ago, but the moral of the tale clearly applies to the situation that George Will describes in Illinois and across the country:

Illinois is a leading indicator of increasing national childishness — an unwillingness to will the means for the ends that it wills. Nationally, state and local governments’ pensions have somewhere between $1 trillion and $4 trillion in unfunded pension liabilities, depending on, among other things, assumptions about returns on pension funds’ investments. The Wall Street Journal reports that in 2001, the 20-year median return was 12.3 percent, and every percentage-point decline in returns increases liabilities by 12 percent. Last year, the largest fund, California Public Employees’ Retirement System, which assumes 7.5 percent returns, instead gained 0.6 percent. This, in the sixth year of the recovery from the 2008–09 crisis, was the worst performance since then — and another recession will surely happen.

Nationally, neither party is eager to talk about the rickety structure of the entitlement state, although the Democratic platform promises to make matters worse. Although scheduled Social Security benefits vastly exceed the value of worker and employer contributions plus interest, the platform, a case study in reactionary liberalism, opposes even raising the retirement age. This, even though benefits are available at 62, three years younger than when the system was created in 1935, when life expectancy at 65 was 12.5 years. Today, it is 19.3 years for men and 21.6 for women. If in 1935 Congress had indexed the age of Social Security eligibility to life expectancy, the age today would be 72.

The council of big-government mice has concluded that the brilliant solution for maintaining the support of powerful labor unions and for gathering the votes of the older citizens who are most inclined to head to the polls and the poor who not only may be driven to the polls, but also make for compelling guilt-trip propaganda, is simply to proclaim payments to them.  So far, they’ve gotten away with pretending that these unsustainable systems will continue to work indefinitely, but they do not wish to acknowledge fiscal reality, much less bell the American people with more taxes.

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Marching Right Back to Crisis with the Pension Fund

Who could have guessed that Rhode Island’s pension fund would prove not to be fixed as promised after the much-applauded pension reform pushed by Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo when she was the state treasurer?  From today’s Providence Journal:

The Rhode Island state pension fund lost $466 million over the past fiscal year, declining from $7.96 billion in assets to $7.50 billion, or 5.9 percent.

It was the second consecutive year that the fund lost money because the payout of benefits exceeded the return on investments and contributions from taxpayers and employees, according to David Ortiz, director of communications for Rhode Island Gen. Treasurer Seth Magaziner.

The market value of investments in the fund for state employees, public school teachers and some municipal employees also fell, by $26 million, or 0.27 percent, in the fiscal year ended June 30.

A point that Gregory Smith doesn’t make in his article, but that is absolutely critical, is that the pension fund is financed with an expectation of a 7.5% return on investment every year.  That means a $26 million loss, versus breaking even, is really nearly a $500 million loss versus where the investment needed to be.  The article goes on to note that other states’ pension funds made small returns, below 2%, but even that isn’t good enough.  Even that should be seen as a loss.

This is why I’ve been attempting to learn the total benefits that the state has already committed to funding, without adjustment to put it into today’s dollars — that is, without reducing it by the estimated investment return.  The state pension agency (the Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island, or ERSRI) and treasurer refused to give me that number, saying the actuary (a private contractor) doesn’t even do that calculation, even though it should be a very simple calculation to do.  Last week, the attorney general’s office backed the pension agency up, although the lawyer is revisiting the decision because he somehow missed a letter I’d submitted that directly refutes the agency’s reasoning and, therefore, his.

I’ve also now requested all of the numbers that the actuary does calculate, and I will simply add them together to get the total.  ERSRI, however, has refused that request, too, insisting that the only way a member of the public can get the number would be to take the raw data and essentially repeat all of the actuary’s work.  This one I may pursue all the way into the court system, because it’s a matter of basic transparency and the rule of law, because the public records statute very clearly requires release of this information.

It’s also critical to the state’s finances.  If our pension fund cannot even achieve positive returns, let alone returns anywhere near the estimated rate, the taxpayers and voters have a right to know how much money we’re talking about.  The reason elected and appointed officials wouldn’t want us to have that information is obvious.

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