TOM WARD - Re-making schools: Round 2 in a Rhode Island renaissance

TOM WARD - Re-making schools: Round 2 in a Rhode Island renaissance

We spend plenty of money on our schools and education in Rhode Island, and some say we don't have much to show for it. Many students leave high school unable to do basic math or write a coherent paragraph, let alone an essay. With no job prospects, some kids move on to colleges which have to spend a year or more on remedial education for them. This is college?

For the education cabal, the answer is always "new money" and "new programs" to solve the problem. Their evidence - as if there is no political agenda behind it - is for all-day kindergarten or even earlier pre-schooling. And so we'll get more teachers, and higher taxes.

When activist teacher unions in the 1970s went on strikes, a wedge was driven between teachers and parents, ending the partnership that existed in the post World War II years and earlier. How many boomers like me recall "the old days," when if a teacher punished a child, kids would "get it again" at home? Those days are gone. Now, mom may get an attorney, administrators hide if they can, and front-line teachers know they are powerless against little punks in their classroom. But this fatal disconnect is societal, extends far beyond schools, and will not be fixed with more money. How can any government officials be expected to "fix" our schools? How can any person in education be blamed when families are dysfunctional?

I think about this as the fight over a new Mayoral Academy has erupted in North Smithfield. There, some parents want nothing to do with the RISE Academy that will serve their town's children, as well as those from Woonsocket and Burrillville. The new school, with educators not part of the teachers' union, will mirror the Blackstone Valley Prep schools growing in Cumberland, Lincoln, Central Falls and Pawtucket. What North Smithfield parents - and the teachers' union - have is the evidence of the Cumberland and Lincoln schools' cost experience, and they have a valid point. Mayoral Academies are funded as "the dollars follow the child" away from the sending districts to the academies, and as time marches on, it is becoming clear that this is a flawed model. What made sense on paper at the beginning is, after seven years, now seen to be unsustainable.

Next year, Cumberland will send $3 million to Blackstone Valley Prep. But as dollars flow out, the fixed costs of things like school repairs, heat, and custodial services remain in full. Meanwhile, BV Prep is building a new set of parallel schools. But, the public districts retain the lion's share of special ed costs, which are forced by the state, and are crippling. North Smithfield parents, citing this evidence, don't want any part of dollars flowing from their already successful schools. Unions are happy to fan those flames.

I noted this in a column several months ago and urged Mayoral Academy leadership to become more proactive in fixing the funding formula, lest they eventually take a beating. The Academies, which I support and which have shown great success in educating children even from the poorest families, are under attack. Still, they have some support for their efforts. Rep. Jay O'Grady chaired a committee this winter to better understand the funding challenges, and its report will be coming in the near future.

With all of this bubbling under the surface comes a dramatically new idea that will probably be ahead of its time. Change comes at a glacial pace here. Still, the R.I. Center for Freedom & Prosperity has unveiled the "Bright Today Scholarship Program" that could be a limited voucher program here. Of course, when you say "vouchers" and "school choice" in this state, some predictably circle the wagons around what they see as "their money." Generally, though, school choice has bipartisan backing, vouchers have a growing acceptance across the country, and the public education monopoly is breaking down.

Still, a "fair funding formula" means every child - including those with special needs - will have to be cared for and educated in a way that taxpayers decide they can support. Perhaps in 2016, Gov. Raimondo and Speaker Mattiello can think about educational reform as "Round 2" in their efforts to remake Rhode Island. It would be big and bold, but ideas that work in other states are already out there. Now we need the courage.

Ward is publisher of The Valley Breeze newspapers.

Comments

You really hit this on the spot, changes within our education system don't normally happen fast and never show positive results. However Charter Schools are one of those rare areas that have had a most positive result on quality education.
And yes the funding has to change but only after public schools have been reformed to bring up their quality of results. If this is not figured out then public schools may be expendable in the future as we know them today.
It is after all about quality of education if this state or the USA is to have a leadership position in jobs and economic growth.