ARLENE VIOLET – Claiming ‘reform’ doesn’t make it so

ARLENE VIOLET – Claiming ‘reform’ doesn’t make it so

So few educational systems teach the Classics nowadays that it is somewhat daunting to quote Virgil’s Aeneid, Book 2, 19 B.C., lest people misunderstand: “Do not trust the Horse, Trojans. Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts.” No lesser luminary than Sophocles (495-406 B.C.) reiterated the same sentiment. No, it is not a “diss” on Greeks; rather it was a historic reference to the wooden horse of Troy used by the Greeks to trick their way into the city and to wipe out their opposition.

The idiom came to mind when I read about the educational “reforms” put forth by the General Assembly in the waning days of the legislative session. Citing it as a “game-changer,” the pronouncement by political officials doesn’t make it so. The principal and the “school improvement team” (GLRI16-53.1-2), which has been around since 2014, will now make the hiring decisions. Given the existence of the “team” for about five years, and the dismal test scores in some communities, one has to wonder about the efficacy of this input. Can you see more dues-paying union members being hired to swell the ranks?

While legislators and the National Education Association of R.I. (NEARI) union’s educational leaders compare the “reform” to Massachusetts, they are leaving out the heart of Massachusetts reform, i.e. teacher evaluations tied to the high-stakes testing. Without these components, taxpayers may very well continue to throw money at the state’s educational morass. Already, the executive director of NEARI has tied the poor performance of students to a gap of pay of $14,000. This was the same claim he made on Lively Experiment when he and I were both panelists. Noting the higher cost of living in Massachusetts I challenged his figures. He cited a study that I asked he send me. I am still waiting for it. Nonetheless, other studies like the one from the R.I. Center for Freedom and Prosperity noted that teacher salaries were about $6,000 less in Massachusetts while the Rhode Island teacher average was about $11,000 more than he cited. After being rebuffed on the facts, the executive director diverted attention from the educational deficiencies by producing a video claiming mental health issues and student hunger as a basis for poor performance. While, no doubt, that is a factor, when the Massachusetts scores were compared to Rhode Island’s performance it was an apples-to-apples comparison with poverty districts in the Bay State being compared to low-income-area schools here.

It’s always disconcerting when the “reform” commences amidst a flurry of excuses before anything begins. Time will tell whether the General Assembly just handed off another sop to unions as it did earlier by extending teacher contracts and lowering the threshold for overtime for firefighters or whether the solons on Smith Hill are serious. Right now, it is just as likely that a bonanza has been handed to union-building.

Some might read this column as an indictment of teachers. It is not. Their own unions handcuff them, although they should get some guts and challenge the status quo. The Leadership of NEARI has been an obstacle and their preemptory excuses they are bandying about bode poorly for students. If they want any credibility, they should stop the public relations campaign and get to work!

Violet is an attorney and former state attorney general.