Almost There on Education Reform?

The most recent Newsmakers program with Democrat Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza showed an interesting side of the mayor.  As one would expect, bulk of the interview addressed the situation in Providence schools.

What was striking about the discussion was the mismatch between the mayor’s analysis and his actions.  He’s looking for “transformational change,” and he knows the teachers contract is central to the problem.  He insists that reform can’t “nip at the edges,” but also that “you just can’t do transformational change through negotiations.”  That is especially true, he says, because state law tilts things so much in the favor of the labor unions.

He’s looked into the experience of state-takeovers around the country and has discovered that the beneficial effects rarely take hold for long.  Yet, he still supports the concept of state takeover in Rhode Island, largely because he foresees an opportunity to change the contract.

With all of this in mind, the mayor shouldn’t have had to wait for the Johns Hopkins report.  He should have had that information in-hand and in front of the General Assembly over the past six months, asking for changes to the laws with which he has a problem.

Other topics raised during the interview had a similar theme:  the problems are at the state level.  One needn’t agree entirely with that statement to suggest that somebody who does would be taking a very different approach than the mayor.  We would be seeing, for example, media campaigns and pressure being put publicly on specific politicians.

This observation carries over into the proposed solutions.  Knowing, as Elorza does, that state interventions don’t tend to translate into long-term improvement, he should understand that it isn’t just policies that have to change.  Sure, a longer school day might help, and a streamlined method of getting rid of underperforming teachers certainly would, but unless the foundational incentives of the workplace change, the system will backslide as soon as the public spotlight moves away.  One could make the case that short-term improvements  in these situations aren’t even a result of the actual policy changes as much as the incentive that everybody has for to perform for a short time in order to avoid more painful reforms.

That is why modifying the competitive environment in which schools operate would surely be a more-effective reform than anything done within the schools themselves.  The system needs the incentives that come with accountability and competition.

Massachusetts attempted to answer that need with the risk that schools would actually be closed and reconstituted.  However, that only kicks in when circumstances get truly terrible, and evidence of the past few years suggests the Bay State may be coming to the end of its run at the front of the national class.  More-conservative states have leaned toward school choice, whether implemented broadly or as the consequence for districts when schools underperform.

Whether reforms that strong would have a chance in Rhode Island is not a question that evokes optimism.  But those are the sorts of questions that we would be seeing influential people ask if they were serious about fixing the problem.

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