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.