Category Archives: News

Select a news topic from the list below, then select a news article to read.

June 18, 2023 District Letter

Dear Neighbors:

I hope you are enjoying Father’s Day. This week’s letter describes some of the legislation the General Assembly passed in its concluding week.

A.   The Education Aid Funding Formula

The legislative budget incorporates many of the revisions to the education aid funding formula contained in the Senate leadership bill S-456, as described in my March 12 letter. These changes include enhanced funding for multi-language learners. I will discuss two of them, namely funding for multi-language learners and revisions to the “state share” calculation.

In my January 15 letter, I identified a gap in the current formula’s “student success factor”, which provides additional funding for each student in poverty, but does not provide additional funds for students learning the English language. The legislative budget includes funding to provide an additional 15% for each student learning the English language, which is smaller than the 40% adjustment for children in poverty, but is a step in the right direction, as the two factors are added together for students who have both characteristics. The Finance Committee reviewed preliminary data suggesting that the incremental costs for these two types of students are almost the opposite of the new funding formula (i.e., the incremental costs for students learning English are significantly higher than for those in poverty.) I will be working with colleagues to collect this data with the goal of adjusting the funding formula further in future years.

As described in my January 22 letter, the “state share” calculation is complicated (and in my opinion distorted) by the “quadratic mean” adjustment. I have come to view this as the “Sheriff of Nottingham” factor, which redistributes State aid from some of its poorest districts to some of its wealthiest ones. This year’s adjusted formula provides the property-poor districts with additional State aid to hold them harmless from the “quadratic mean.” Next year I will continue to advocate for its complete removal, as it was enacted to solve a political problem rather than to advance the formula’s stated policy goals.

B.    Other Legislation

Among the more than 125 substantive bills the General Assembly passed last week, I introduced the following:

1.        Education

Bill S-190 requires collective bargaining agreements entered into by the Providence School Department during the State takeover to be publicly vetted and approved by the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education.

Bill S-1131 establishes a Senate study commission to review Rhode Island’s laws that affect the educator management-labor relationship in the Providence Public Schools.

2.        Environment

Bill No. S-465 would direct the Public Utilities Commission to open a proceeding to establish tariff rates for microgrid services. In other jurisdictions, electricity consumers can combine to form microgrids, a community that is largely self-sufficient in its electricity use. (This bill passed the Senate only; however, it is likely to be implemented given the budgeting of consultant funds in Bill S-515 below.)

Bill No. S-515 authorizes the appropriation of $100,000 to the Public Utilities Commission to provide technical support for the development of a microgrid tariff (as proposed in Bill No. S-465 above). The legislative budget includes these funds.

3.        Open Government

Bill No. S-767 requires the public posting of financial information related to the expenditure of American Rescue Plan Act funds by school districts and municipal governments. 

C.   Conclusion

This year’s budget included a surplus and supplemental federal funds that supported several one-time expenditures on programs to enhance our short-term recovery from the pandemic and long-term investments in our State. Next year’s budget will bring a return to more difficult choices among essential programs.

Thank you for your interest in State issues. With the conclusion of this year’s General Assembly session, I will be taking a break from writing weekly letters until we approach the start of next year’s session. I may send out occasional updates as events warrant. I hope you all enjoy your summer.

June 11, 2023 District Letter

Dear Neighbors:

Yesterday, Lauren and I heard some entertaining musical performances by talented artists in our neighborhood as part of PVD Porch Fest. We hope to return next year and for many years to come. This week’s letter discusses ways to improve the Providence Public Schools and some of the highlights of the legislative budget

A. Improving the Delivery of Education in the Providence Public Schools

We are nearing the end of the fourth school year of the State’s takeover of the Providence Public Schools, and it is far from clear whether the State has achieved any transformational change that could carry over to a return to local control. Last December, former Providence Teachers Union President Steve Smith and former Providence Schools Superintendent Susan Lusi collaborated on an opinion piece that made the case for reshaping the labor-management relationship in Providence schools to elevate the status of teachers as education professionals who share greater responsibility with management for policy decisions and accountability for outcomes. Boston Globe writer Dan McGowan reviewed their essay in a column entitled “These Grownups Have Real Ideas to Fix the Providence Public Schools. Will Someone Please Call Them?”, in which he endorsed their “call to action.”

With that in mind, Representative Slater and I have introduced a joint resolution to establish a legislative study commission consisting of three legislators from each chamber, a representative from the Department of Education, and two non-voting members of the public who could be Mr. Smith and Dr. Lusi. The commission will be charged with (1) reviewing the labor-management relationship in Providence defined by State law, (2) gaining feedback from stakeholders and (3) presenting a report next year with recommendations for changes (if any) in State law governing the labor-management relationship in Providence that can improve the delivery of education in Providence Public Schools classrooms.

B.   The Legislative Budget

The House Finance Committee unveiled its budget last Friday (June 2), and the full House of Representatives approved it with some modifications on June 9. The Senate will review and vote on the House budget in the coming week. Because the House budget was negotiated with Senate leadership and the Governor, I do not expect the Senate to make major changes. I believe the resulting legislative budget improved upon the Governor’s budget in several areas, including three shifts in tax policy.

1.     The Motor Fuel Tax

The legislative budget removed the Governor’s proposed “pause” of inflation adjustments to the motor fuel tax that would permanently cut off a $12.4 million annual revenue stream. As I noted in my February 5 letter, the gasoline tax is a “user fee,” a funding source that matches (in part) the cost of maintaining roads with those who benefit from them. (With the increased use of electric vehicles, we will need to find another “user fee” for these users.) This user fee also advances the policy goals of the Act on Climate by providing funds for public transportation and by creating a financial incentive for non-automobile alternatives.

2.     The Sales Tax

The legislative budget also removed the Governor’s proposed reduction of the sales tax from 7.0% to 6.85%, which would have produced a $35 million reduction in annual revenues. As noted in my February 12 letter, this tax reduction would provide only modest savings to taxpayers. Also, given the numerous exemptions already present in our sales tax, it is far from clear that Rhode Island would derive any competitive advantage from the proposed broad-based reduction.

3.     The Business Tangible Tax

The legislative budget chose a different tax reduction program, creating a $50,000 exemption for all businesses from the tangible tax imposed by municipalities, using approximately $25 million in State funds to reimburse local authorities for this exemption. This tax reduction/exemption will save thousands of businesses (especially small businesses) of a time consuming and financially burdensome regime. There is a degree of State involvement in local tax policy, which, as I noted in last week’s letter can raise issues. In this case, however, the State’s involvement is in the form of a financial subsidy rather than an unfunded mandate.

June 4, 2023 District Letter

Dear Neighbors:

I hope you enjoy the arrival of June, with its long days and (normally) warmer weather. With the House Finance Committee’s release of the legislative budget, we are heading into the home stretch of this year’s session. I will review some high points of the House budget next week. In this week’s letter, I am going to discuss the issue of balancing statewide and local interests.

1.     The National Debate Between State and Local Control

In recent years, we have seen the state legislatures in “red” states pass laws to constrain the authority of “blue” cities in such areas as the removal of Confederate monuments and mask mandates and other pandemic regulations. Rhode Island is not exempt from this type of conflict. As a general matter, municipalities are treated as a creature of State law; therefore, their authority to enact regulations on a local basis often requires State permission, as provided by Article XIII of Rhode Island’s Constitution.

2.     State Regulation of Local Tax Exemptions

It is clear that there are some issues that are and should be handled at the State level (such as responding to climate change), but the category of purely local issues is much less well-defined. I saw an example of this in Tuesday’s Senate floor debate of a bill to permit the Town of Tiverton to grant a discretionary property tax exemption to a pregnancy-counseling organization that is reported to encourage women not to have abortions. One of my Senate colleagues from Providence rose to oppose the exemption on policy grounds. Were I a resident of Tiverton (or a member of its Town Council) I would agree; however, the question before us was whether the State should grant Tiverton permission to issue a tax exemption its citizens and government had approved. In my opinion, the State should not have a role in deciding these questions in the great majority of instances, just as I disagree with the actions by the State legislatures in Alabama and Tennessee to prohibit cities from removing Confederate monuments.

3.     Providing Local Communities Authority to Regulate

I introduced bills this year to promote local initiatives in such areas as gun safety regulations that exceed the State’s baseline, regulation of short-term rentals, and providing funding to encourage municipal bans on gasoline powered leaf blowers. For each of these, I made the argument that local communities may have different conditions and priorities that can be achieved without requiring other Rhode Island communities to comply with the same standard. There is a range of views within Rhode Island about each of these policies, often dividing between urban communities versus suburban and rural ones. I therefore filed these bills to seek a middle path that accommodates the preferences of disparate communities.

4.     Local Control as a Constraint on Affordable Housing

On the other hand, there are issues of Statewide interest that may conflict with the norm of local control. We are seeing one such issue play out this year in the area of housing policy, where there is a Statewide shortage of housing generally, and affordable housing in particular, which different municipalities have addressed with differing levels of support. Several years ago, the General Assembly enacted a law to establish a target of 10% of affordable housing in each city and town, with certain mandates to streamline local planning process in communities failing to meet the target. As of today, Providence is one of only six Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns have reached the 10% target. I believe that local land use laws can be an impediment to this Statewide goal, particularly in the communities that have failed to meet the 10% threshold (often by a wide margin). It is possible that an incentives program will help solve this Statewide problem without impinging on local control. Should incentives not succeed, however, this area of local control may have to yield to Statewide priorities.

5.     Conclusion

While we like to think that Rhode Island’s small size creates more opportunities to develop Statewide solutions to our challenges, the diversity of local conditions may support a more varied approach in some cases. On the other hand, there are Statewide issues where local control may stand in the way of needed solutions. I do not have a simple formula to balance Statewide and local priorities. Instead, I will continue to look for the best legislative solution for each issue our State and our communities within it face.

May 28, 2023 District Letter

Dear Neighbors:

I hope you are enjoying this Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start to the summer season in Rhode Island. This week’s letter discusses smoking in casinos, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority and the upcoming meeting of the non-plurality voting systems commission.

A.   Smoking In Casinos

In 2004, the General Assembly enacted a general indoor smoking ban that exempted gambling facilities. During the pandemic, the State extended the smoking ban to casinos, which created outdoor smoking areas. Last year, indoor smoking at casinos returned. Towards the end of last year’s legislative session, a group of casino employees advocated for the return of the smoking ban, based among other things upon the impact of second-hand smoke on their health, and the inability of ventilation systems to mitigate this risk. The legislation did not move forward last year, but the proponents returned to the Finance Committee Thursday night to express support for Senate Bill S-438, which would restore the indoor smoking ban. . 

The casino operators opposed the legislation, estimating that an indoor smoking ban could reduce revenues by 10%-15% of the State’s current annual revenues of approximately $600 million. Proponents questioned the financial projections, noting that (1) casino patrons who smoke could still do so outdoors (as they had during the pandemic), (2) the proportion of smokers in the United States is steadily declining and (3) because casinos in Massachusetts and Connecticut already ban smoking, it is not clear where smoking patrons would go instead. (though it is possible that the smokers from these other states currently go to Rhode Island). We did not have any clear data concerning the budgetary impact of a smoking ban in Rhode Island’s casinos, but I decided to co-sponsor S-438, because the health benefits from a ban are clear.  

B.    The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority

The Senate Finance Committee reviewed two bills to revise the management and governance of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA). Bill S-773 would establish procurement procedures, while Bill S-991 Sub A would elevate the Director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) from non-voting board member to Board Chair. Proponents argued that these bills could establish needed guardrails to better coordinate the relationships between the RIPTA Director and the Board on the one hand, and among Board members on the other. Opponents questioned RIDOT’s commitment to public transportation, and urged the Senate to address a higher RIPTA priority, namely its need for greater funding. 

At the hearing, I inquired about RIPTA’s current governance structure as a quasi-public corporation. As I read the enabling statute, RIPTA’s board already has the authority to adopt resolutions to establish policies and procedures, so it is my hope they will make better use of that authority in the future. I agree with Thursday night’s witnesses that RIPTA needs additional State resources, as it is an essential part of our State’s economic well-being and environmental future. As a result, I will continue my commitment to support legislative oversight of RIDOT especially with regard to its responsibilities to implement the State’s Transit Master Plan and Act on Climate.      

C.   The Non-Plurality Voting Systems Commission

The Senate commission to study non-plurality voting systems will hold its last meeting of this legislative session on Wednesday, May 31 at 2:00 p.m. in the Senate Lounge. The Commission will receive public comment, which you can offer either in person or in writing by sending your comments to . You can learn about the Commission’s work in my letters of March 5March 26, and May 14. You also can review the Commission’s documents and view the Commission hearings. After hearing public comment, the Commissioners will exchange their conclusions from the hearings. Over the summer, Commission staff will prepare a draft report. This fall, the Commission will reconvene to review a draft report with the goal of preparing and approving a final report to submit to the Senate at the beginning of next year.

May 21, 2023 Letter

Dear Neighbors:

As Congressional gridlock pushes our nation’s economy towards a cliff, our State House officials are negotiating Rhode Island’s budget, which we expect the House Finance Committee to present in the next few weeks. This week’s letter will discuss a recent presentation from the new Department of Housing in the context of the State’s efforts to address longstanding shortages of this critical resource.

A.   The 2022 Commitment of Federal Pandemic Relief Funds

As noted in my letters of January 16, 2022 and May 15, 2022, the State identified housing as a priority for the federal pandemic relief funds, committing $250 million for this purpose. Last year, the Governor appointed Josh Saal as assistant secretary for housing within the Commerce Department. At an April 7, 2022 hearing, Mr. Saal acknowledged that the key elements of the State’s plans to spend the $250 million were not yet in place, partly because the State did not have an existing overall plan to address the housing shortage. He stated that he intended to prepare such a plan during the coming year. 

B.    The Unmet Need for Planning

Last fall, Mr. Saal left State government. A few months later, Governor McKee appointed Stefan Pryor as Secretary of a new free-standing Department of Housing. When Secretary Pryor presented the new Department’s budget to the Finance Committee last week, he identified the need to develop a Statewide housing plan. He said he needed at least a year to complete it. When I asked whether Mr. Saal had made any progress on such a plan, Secretary Pryor stated that the previous work was limited to ideas about spending the $250 million without developing sufficient context around it. As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”

C.   Available Federal Subsidies

The Governor’s federal budget includes $90 million to subsidize the development of 600 low income housing units, a subsidy per housing unit of $150,000. As I noted in my May 15, 2022 letter, State grants for low income housing can be leveraged with a transferrable federal tax credit (with the acronym LIHTC) that can pay for 30% of the cost if certain requirements are met, including the expenditure of State funds. Unfortunately, the Governor’s budget used $90 million of federal funds, even though the budget had a surplus of over $600 million of State funds. I advocated last year (unsuccessfully) to fund the low-income housing program with State funds and to transfer other State expenditures into the federal budget. (The federal guidelines are sufficiently flexible to allow such a re-designation of certain State programs.) Because of these budgetary decisions (and others before them), Rhode Island has not made sufficient use of the LIHTC program to spur the development of low income housing. We will need to commit general revenue funds for this purpose in the future if we wish to make any meaningful progress in addressing the State’s housing shortage.

D.   The Scale of Our Housing Shortage

At the hearing, Secretary Pryor confirmed that the housing plan will include a full assessment of the State’s housing shortage (which spans the spectrum from market rate housing, to worker housing, to low income housing, to shelter for people experiencing homelessness), benchmarks and goals to reach, and plans to achieve those benchmarks and goals. Because, for example, the shortage of low income housing exceeds 5,000 units, and the current budget for a State subsidy per unit is $150,000 (making for a total of $750 million, though this could be reduced to around $500 million if State, rather than federal funds are used), the State will need a significant commitment of resources to address this issue, as well as the enactment of other reforms to reduce the current, excessive regulatory burdens that limit housing development.

E.    Recent Initiatives and Conclusion

Last week, the Governor announced two budget amendments to allocate an additional $29 million of federal funds to support housing development, which no doubt can be helpful if invested as part of a well-planned program, though perhaps less effectively than the same amount of state funds. With that said, we will need to make a long-term and substantial commitment of state-level funds to “unlock” the additional support available under federal programs.

May 14, 2023 District Letter

Dear Neighbors:

I hope you can share Mother’s Day with your family, be it together, on the telephone or virtually. This week’s letter will discuss alternative voting systems and last week’s estimate of budget revenues.

1.     Maine’s Voting System

On Wednesday, the Senate commission studying non-plurality voting systems heard a presentation by Sara Gideon. She served as Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives when that state adopted a ranked-choice system for State primaries for State and federal offices, and elections for federal office. (Maine’s Constitution requires plurality elections for State offices.)

Maine’s program brought voting administration changes including a more extensive ballot, a tabulation process that required more than one night to complete, and the possibility that a candidate whose plurality (which was less than a majority) led after the first round only to lose the race to someone with fewer first-place votes after the second-place and third-place votes were counted. The Secretary of State and the candidates engaged in extensive voter education. Maine voters adjusted to all of these changes, even in one race where a local candidate who won only 5% of the first-choice votes ultimately won a majority after the second, third and fourth-place votes were counted. In that case, even the losing candidates accepted the legitimacy of a result that would have been impossible in a strict plurality system.

The Commission will hold one more meeting, on May 31 at 2:00 p.m.  At that time, the Commissioners will welcome public comment, and will discuss their own initial thoughts concerning the alternatives to Rhode Island’s current voting system. We also welcome public comments in writing, which you can send via email to the Commission’s legal counsel, Patricia Breslin, at . 

2.     Determination of Next Year’s Budget Revenue

Last week, the Department of Revenue completed its final estimate of State revenues for the upcoming fiscal year. The estimate projects a general fund surplus of $540 million, slightly less than the $600 million projected in the Governor’s budget, but still significant, particularly given the impact of inflation and the Federal Reserve Bank’s measures to address it. 

A major contributor to the surplus it the more than 1,000 vacancies in the State’s workforce as I noted in last week’s letter. While these vacancies reduce the cost of government, they also cause serious deficits in critical State programs including public safety (State Police, courtroom sheriffs, Department of Corrections guards, etc.) and social services for the most vulnerable Rhode Islanders. Also, the vacancies reduce the State’s contribution to the pension fund, which is based on the overall State payroll. I asked the Treasurer to explain the impact the vacancies have on the pension. He responded in a letter that informed me that the State pays interest into the fund for these unpaid contributions, and the overall State contribution is rebalanced each year based on staffing levels and anticipated pension costs. As a result, the State’s future pension contributions will increase due to this year’s understaffing. Also, to the extent that the vacancies result from inadequate pay (which appears to be the case for several agencies), it may become necessary to increase agency budgets to hire essential staff.

To conclude, the revenue projections indicate signficant funds that can be spent on one-time projects next year, but also long-term headwinds that support caution regarding multiyear revenue commitments, either in the form of tax reductions or permanent new programs.

May 7, 2023 District Letter

As we resume much of the “normal” life we had before the pandemic, our observance of Mental Health Awareness Month provides an opportunity to reflect and remember the many members of our community whose struggles continue from the plague that arrived three years ago. May is also the month in which the General Assembly makes its final estimates of revenues and case loads to set a fiscal frame for next year’s budget. In this week’s letter, I discuss some of the budget options we have seen to date in the Finance Committee.

The 2023-24 State Budget

The State’s budgets for the past three years have been exceptional in terms of both the range of crises that required a massive response and the amount of additional federal funds provided to meet those challenges. The federal government also supported a rapid rebound of the national economy through generous fiscal and monetary policies, described in a recent PBS documentary as the Age of Easy Money. The pandemic exposed several holes in the State’s “safety net” for vulnerable Rhode Islanders, which the State was able to alleviate with a temporary “patch” of federal funds, as well as a substantial surplus in last year’s State budget. 

This coming year’s budget will have less support from the federal funds “patch,” which by then will be largely exhausted. The State’s initial projection of a surplus of State funds for this year’s budget also likely will be reduced, as it was based in substantial part on a failure to fill more than 1,000 vacant State positions that are being filled, and which is subject to revision this month as we recover from the “Age of Easy Money.” In light of this, I believe the State’s fiscal capacity to fund new multiyear initiatives and/or to enact substantial permanent tax cuts will be significantly constrained. Among the major proposals for new initiatives that will compete for priority in this fiscal environment are the following:

A.       Tax Relief

1.     Sales Tax

The Governor’s budget proposes a permanent 0.15% reduction in the sales tax rate (reducing it to 6.85%), which would provide annual savings of $39 to the average Rhode Island household and have a fiscal impact of $25 million next year and $35 million in subsequent years. Other legislation proposes larger reductions to 6.5% ($119 in household savings, $112 million in lost revenue) and 6% ($239 in household savings, $225 million in lost revenue).

2.     Gasoline Tax

The Governor’s budget proposes a “pause” in next year’s scheduled increase in the gasoline tax, which would reduce revenue by $12 million annually.

3.     Tangible Tax

The Senate leadership has proposed a statewide tangible property tax exemption of $100,000 (with the shortfall reimbursed to municipalities with State funds) that would require an annual commitment of $36 million.

B.       Programmatic Initiatives

1.                 Housing

A recent Rhode Island Foundation report was but the latest reminder of the State’s longstanding shortage of housing generally, especially affordable housing. The report calls for a strong State response, beginning with greater staffing to coordinate local and private projects, and extending to the creation of a State housing development corporation. This later proposal, which is included in Senate Bill 866, was proposed last year with an initial capitalization amount of $300 million. 

2.                 Public Transportation

The Rhode Island Public Transportation Authority received federal funding to maintain its operations in the face of reduced ridership during the pandemic. With the exhaustion of those federal funds, RIPTA has requested an additional $30 million in State funding to avoid drastic service cuts.

3.                 Social Services

As first documented in my November 28, 2021 letter and in others since then, the pandemic exposed holes in the State’s safety for for Rhode Islanders with disabilities, seniors, children and families, and those battling mental health conditions and substance abuse. The State allocated federal funds to create a two year “patch” to stabilize this emergency, but those funds will largely run out at the conclusion of the current fiscal year. At one point, the United States House of Representatives approved the Build Back Better Act, which would have provided long-term investments of federal funds in this area, but the bill was not approved by the United States Senate. The General Assembly approved legislation last year to conduct a comprehensive review of provider reimbursement rates to be completed later this year, but in the meantime, Senator DiPalma has proposed bill S-782, which would appropriate $200 million in general revenues for the next year to continue the increased wages and reimbursements pending completion of the rate review process.

4.                 Higher Education

In a Presentation to the Senate Finance Committee, the President of the University of Rhode Island documented the State’s disinvestment of 37% over the last 20 years (in inflation adjusted dollars) at a time when enrollment has grown by 33%, leaving URI as worst-funded “flagship” public university in the country. This disinvestment has manifested itself in threadbare programming and crumbling facilities. URI requested an additional $32 million in operating funds next year and $122 million in capital funds over the next five years.

5. Relief for Retired State Employees

In 2011, the General Asssembly enacted pension reform, which included a freeze on cost of living adjustments (COLA’s) for retirees until the fund reached 80% of the actuarily “fully funded” amount. At a hearing last week, we learned that the current target date to resume COLA’s is 2031, and that the purchasing power of a pension awarded in 2011 or earlier has declined by 30% since the reforms took effect. There are a series of proposals to provide partial compensation that range from $5 million — $30 million as a one-time expenditure, to others that would commit $30 million or more annually going forward.

6.                 Other programs

Many other governmental departments requested budget increases beyond the Governor’s budget, such as for teacher training, pre-kindergarten, public education and other initiatives in amounts of less than $5 million apiece. It also is possible I will learn of new initiatives proposed before the Senate Finance Committee and/or from elsewhere in the General Assembly in the coming weeks.


In hearings before the Senate Finance Committee, we have heard and will continue to hear often compelling presentations describing the social benefits of proposed tax reductions and/or investments in existing or new government programs. When I consider each presentation in isolation, I often see arguments to justify its incorporation into the budget; however, such an approach is not financially possible in the aggregate. These individual decisions ultimately will be determined in part by the financial projections the General Assembly will make this month. Once that amount is set, the State will have to decide which items within the universe of worthy possibilities can be made priorities in next year’s budget.

April 30 District Letter

I hope you enjoyed Earth Day, including those of you who marked your celebration by a neighborhood cleanup. This week’s letter will first discuss the latest data available to assess State’s takeover of the Providence Public Schools, which indicate that the takeover is not succeeding. The letter will then discuss the Governor’s recently announced education plan, which is not actually a plan.

1.     Assessing the State’s Takeover of the Providence Public Schools.

Earlier this month, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) published “report cards” describing the performance of schools and school districts in the 2021-22 academic year. The data provide an opportunity to gauge the success of the State’s 2019 takeover of the Providence Public Schools. Aware that the pandemic affected our schools during these three years, I looked at data measuring the growth (or improvement) in academic performance in Providence, rather than the static achievement level. Also, instead of looking at Providence in isolation, I compared Providence’s improvement to two peer communities, Pawtucket and Woonsocket.

a.        Growth in English Language Arts in 2021-22: Providence is level with Pawtucket and Woonsocket

RIDE grades academic growth on a three-point scale each for English language arts and mathematics. In its 2021-22 report card, Providence earned a rating of two points out of three in English language arts growth, the same as Pawtucket and Woonsocket

b.        Growth in ELA in 2018-19: Providence was ahead with Pawtucket and Woonsocket

I then reviewed the report cards from 2018-19, the last school year prior to the takeover. Because the 2018-19 RIDE report card did not aggregate the growth rating of individual schools into a single number, I constructed an aggregate by taking the average growth rating for all of the district’s schools, where a score of 1 indicates an adequate baseline. Using this method, I calculated that Providence’s composite ELA growth score in 2018-19 was 0.86, which was better than both Pawtucket (0.84) and Woonsocket (0.77). 

To test my conclusion, I used the same methodology for the 2021-22 data. Providence’s composite score was 0.85, better than Woonsocket’s 0.82, but lower than Pawtucket’s 0.95. In other words, Providence’s rate of growth in ELA achievement outpaced these two peer communities prior to the takeover, but those communities gained ground on Providence (Woonsocket) or passed Providence (Pawtucket) since the State takeover began. 

c.        Growth in Mathematics

Moving over to mathematics, Providence’s rate of improvement in mathematics was weaker than Pawtucket and Woonsocket both in 2018-19 and in 2021-22, but the gap between Providence and its two peer communities increased since the takeover began.

d.        What the Report Cards Tell Us

My analysis has limitations, both in terms of the small number of data points and the partial shift in how the data was reported over time. With that said, I believe it is safe to say that the State’s takeover of the Providence Public Schools has failed to produce greater improvement in Providence compared to its peer communities. I also believe the data support the conclusion that in some areas, Providence’s rate of improvement (as measured against its peers) has declined since the takeover began.

2.     The Governor’s Education Plan

In the Governor’s State of the State Address, he pledged “within the first 100 days of my full term, we will be outlining a plan to reach Massachusetts education levels by 2030.” 100 days later, he made an Education Address in which he presented his “Learn 365 RI” strategy. He identified three areas for Rhode Island to attain Massachusetts levels, namely RICAS math/English scores, student attendance and FAFSA completion. The described strategy will consist of funding for agreements with mayors to support extracurricular activities outside of the normal school day and school year. 

The “Learn 365 RI strategy” does not achieve the Governor’s State of the State claims. To begin with, it is not a plan. A real plan contains goals, benchmarks and implementation mechanisms in addition to any strategies. Second, Learn 365 RI is manifestly unsuited to achieve the lofty goal articulated in the State of the State Address. To point out the most obvious problem, this “strategy” is limited to supplemental programs outside of the normal school day and school year, and may be duplicative with successful existing supplemental programs such as Providence After School Alliance and Inspiring Minds.  

A real plan, such as the one adopted by Massachusetts in its Education Reform Act of 1993, relies primarily upon structural changes to the delivery of education in the classroom during the school day. A sounder way to catch up to Massachusetts by 2030 would be to follow the best practices from the Bay State, which have little if anything to do with extracurricular programs. In short, the “Learn 365 strategy” is, at best, an interesting idea, but it falls far short of being a plan, never mind a plan that has a non-trivial chance of achieving its stated goal of catching Rhode Island’s schools up to the level of Massachusetts by 2030. Instead, it is more accurately viewed as a political strategy in ways that resemble the Governor’s “Rhode Island 2030 working document” that I reviewed in my November 21, 2021 letter.

3.     Conclusion

I believe the 2021-22 report card fails to demonstrate any improvement in the growth of academic performance among the students in the Providence Public Schools as measured against the peer communities of Pawtucket and Woonsocket. In fact, there are data to support the conclusion that Providence’s comparative rate of improvement is inferior today to what it was prior to the takeover. Also, the Governor’s “plan” to improve the State’s academic outcomes to catch up with Massachusetts by 2030 is not an actual plan, never mind a plausible one. 

For these reasons, I believe the best future for the Providence Public Schools will come when the State finds the courage and the candor to (1) acknowledge that the takeover of the Providence Public Schools is not succeeding, (2) learn from its mistakes to make the best use possible of the remaining years of the current takeover term and (3) begin a credible planning process for the best possible transition back to local control.

March 12, 2023 District Letter

Dear Neighbors:

I hope you navigate today’s transition to Daylight Savings Time, with its (temporarily) darker mornings and brighter evenings. In this week’s letter I will discuss: (1) legislation to address the teacher shortage, (2) proposed revisions to the education aid funding formula, (3) restoring the rights of parents of children in special education programs and (4) collaboration between the Providence School Department and the Providence School Board.

1.     Retaining Retired Teachers To Fill Classroom Vacancies

As noted in my February 19 letter, Providence and many other Rhode Island school districts face a shortage of classroom teachers this year, which they are filling with retired teachers. Under State law, those retired teachers normally are limited to 90 days of active work annually, but on Tuesday the Senate passed legislation to waive the 90-day cap for this school year and next, subject to districts’ obligation to fill as many vacancies as possible first with active teachers. The House of Representatives likely will pass the bill this week, opening a window of time in which to develop a longer-term remedy.

2.     Improving The Education Aid Funding Formula

In my letters of January 8January 15, and January 22, I described the components of the State’s education aid funding formula, noting the need for improvement in several of them. At last Tuesday’s Finance Committee meeting, Senate leadership presented Bill S-456, which would (1) expand the “student success factor” weight of +40% per pupil to multi-language learner students and (2) allow school districts to waive the “quadratic mean” calculation of State share if it reduces their state aid (as it does in Pawtucket and Woonsocket). I would prefer a more comprehensive review and reform. At a minimum, I would prefer that the incremental reform proposed recognize the extra needs of multi-language learners who also are in poverty and remove the “quadratic mean” completely. Nevertheless, the Senate leadership bill does represent progress.   The Finance Committee voted to hold the bill for further study.

3.     Restoring The Rights Of Parents Of Children in Special Education Programs

On Wednesday night, the Education Committee heard public comment concerning Bill S-180, which would restore to parents of children in special education programs certain procedural rights concerning the development and modification of a child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP).  Prior to 2008, Rhode Island and federal special education law guaranteed parents the right to review an initial IEP in advance of the meeting at which it was initially adopted, and the right to approve (or disapprove) subsequent changes to the plan. In 2008, new laws removed these procedural rights. Many Rhode Island school districts continue the pre-2008 program as a best practice, but there are “horror stories” from parents of children in school districts that abandoned the pre-2008 program. The bill would restore the pre-2008 standards for all parents. Advocates and educators testified that they will work together over the coming weeks to develop an amended bill that (hopefully) both sides can support. The bill’s sponsors also plan to introduce legislation to address an acute crisis in Providence, where dozens of special education students between the ages of 3 and 5 are unable to attend school due the district’s failure to hire qualified teachers.

4.     Enhancing Collaboration Between The Providence School Board And The Providence School Department

As a result of the 2019 State takeover of the Providence Public Schools, the Providence School Board relinquished its supervisory authority to the State, which in turn conferred it upon the Commissioner of Education and the Turnaround Superintendent. Last year, the General Assembly enacted S-2838B, which directed the School Department to present regular reports to the School Board beginning this month. The bill also directed the School Department to update the Turnaround Action Plan (TAP) to incorporate meaningful annual goals, as the original TAP stated ambitious targets to reach by the end of five years, without identifying intermediate annual benchmarks to allow us to monitor the effort’s progress. The bill (which was passed last June) directed the School Department to complete this update by September 1, 2022. Unfortunately, the School Department failed to do so; instead, we are now more than six months past the deadline with no changes to the TAP. It is against this background that the new Providence School Board will meet this Wednesday evening (March 15) at 6:00 p.m. It is my hope that the School Department enlists the collaboration of the School Board to bring the TAP into compliance with, paving the way for future collaboration in other important areas (such as facilities plans or the above-mentioned special education crisis) as we prepare for the day when operation and management of the Providence Public Schools return to local control.

March 19, 2023 Letter

I hope you enjoyed your celebration of St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s Days. When my children were little, I used to serve them (with the aid of blue food coloring) green scrambled eggs on March 17, to their delight (initially) and annoyance (later on). This week’s letter will discuss the School Department’s revision to the Turnaround Action Plan, the City’s electricity aggregation program and the non-plurality voting systems study commission.

1.     Updating The Turnaround Action Plan

When the State takeover began in 2019, the Providence School Department developed a Turnaround Action Plan (TAP) which presented at slides 31-34 a series of metrics by which to measure the success of the takeover. For each of the metrics (such as percentage of 8th grade mathematics students achieving proficiency), the TAP stated the 2019 performance level (which was 7.4%) and the 5-year goal (in this case 50%). Unfortunately, the TAP did not provide a year-by-year set of annual benchmarks to measure progress towards the ultimate goal. Thus, for example, during the 2022-23 school year, only 10% of the 8th grade mathematics students achieved proficiency, making it difficult to predict with confidence that the District will reach the 50% goal in four years. (Because of COVID, the 5-year goals have been extended by two years.)

In light of this, I introduced legislation last year that the General Assembly passed in modified form as Bill S-2838B which, required, among other things, that the School Department update the TAP to include meaningful annual goals in 16 areas by a deadline of September 1, 2022. Unfortunately, the original, deficient TAP remains on the School Department’s website, and in correspondence I had with the School Department through the end of February, 2023, the Department updated the TAP in only 5 of the 16 required areas.  

At a School Board meeting this past Wednesday, the School Department presented a TAP Update that includes additional meaningful annual goals, bringing the total to 10 or 11 of the law’s 16 required areas. This improvement is appreciated; however, we are now more than 6 months past the deadline. In my lawyer’s world, we would call this material non-compliance with a clear legal obligation.  Even if we allowed some room for error, a student who takes a 16-question quiz and gets 10 or 11 answers correct will receive at best a grade of D+ (68.75%). I am hopeful that the School Department will, in the coming weeks, work with the School Board (whose input the School Department has, to date, essentially ignored) to improve its compliance with the law to a level closer to what our schools properly expect from our students.

2.     The City’s Electricity Aggregation Plan

In recent weeks, Providence received a letter from the City announcing our participation in its Community Electricity Program. The letter informs us that we are automatically enrolled in the program but can choose to opt out at any time. I have not personally been involved in the selection or implementation of this program, but I recommend your reading an informative letter from Council member Sue Anderbois, a letter from Council Member Helen Anthony and a Report describing a similar program in Massachusetts. These two Council members are holding a Zoom on Monday, March 27, which you can connect to using a link in Councilwoman Anthony’s letter above.

3.     The Non-Plurality Voting Systems Commission

The next meeting of the Non-Plurality Voting Systems Commission will take place on Wednesday, March 22 at 2:00 p.m. in the Senate Lounge. The Commission will hear from FairVote, an organization advocating for ranked-choice voting and the National Council on State Legislatures, a non-partisan research organization that will provide a general overview to supplement the one the Commission received on March 1 from Professor Myers.