On Monday night (February 28), the Senate Oversight Committee met for five hours to hear testimony from the Rhode Island Department of Education and public comment from stakeholders concerning the State’s takeover of the Providence Public Schools. The Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) witnesses testified first, supplementing their testimony with this handout. The Commissioner stated that all of the turnaround plan’s student achievement goals would be extended for two years because the COVID pandemic essentially created two years of lost progress. As a result, the goals that the post-takeover Providence Public Schools set for the 2024-25 school year have been extended to 2026-27. When Committee members asked the Commissioner whether the new, extended performance goals were attainable, she stated that those goals were developed according to what the community wanted, implying that they were not necessarily based on RIDE’s own assessment of what was attainable. At another point, the Commissioner stated that Providence’s original 5-year takeover timeline was actually ambitious compared to Massachusetts, which took ten years to bring significant improvements to the Commonwealth’s schools
The Commissioner’s testimony left me wondering whether RIDE’s turnaround plan overpromised to the community about what RIDE believed a State takeover could accomplish. The transition from five years to seven years (due to COVID) to ten or twelve years (in their comparison with Massachusetts) also left me wondering whether RIDE is doing all it can to achieve the promises it made when it undertook the takeover, regardless of how realistic RIDE thought those initial promises were. For example, Slide 8 (“Excellence in Learning”) discusses the goals of increasing the length of class to a minimum of 70 minutes and adding 25% more time to reading, writing and mathematics. Given the fixed length of the school day contained in the teachers’ contract, I do not see how these goals will be attained, particularly if the Providence Public Schools retains its commitment to the other parts of its curriculum (such as for example science, social studies, foreign languages, history, art and physical education), many of which are mandated in the State’s Basic Education Plan. As we know, the State had the opportunity to negotiate a longer school day in the contract that was signed last year, but failed to do so. We also know that the State, in a departure from prior practice in Providence and elsewhere, did not allow for public feedback concerning the terms of that contract, preventing anyone outside the negotiators from learning its terms until after the contract was finalized and unchangeable.
Following RIDE’s presentation, other witnesses offered public comments both orally and in writing. They expressed a wide range of viewpoints which are not possible to summarize here. The experience reminded me of the marathon meetings that the Providence School Board held when I served on it during 2000-02. With that said, there were two major differences. First, the Senate Oversight Committee does not have any authority to set policy for the Providence Public Schools. Second, the Oversight Committee’s hearings on the Providence Public Schools take place on a quarterly basis, rather than on the regular schedule of the Providence School Board. As a result, the Oversight Committee hearings are, by design, only a modest mechanism for providing a forum for public engagement with the Providence Public Schools. Despite and/or because of these structural features, I believe that Monday night’s hearing reinforced my view that the State’s takeover is lacking in engagement and accountability, and that the current legislative oversight hearings, while beneficial, do not provide an adequate structure for addressing these two critical needs. Monday night’s hearing also reinforced the conclusion that the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education is unable and/or unwilling to perform these vital functions of engagement and accountability for the Providence Public Schools today, and that the Crowley Act contains gaps that need review and reform before the next State takeover occurs.
Some of Monday night’s commenters advocated for a prompt return of the Providence Public Schools to local control. I am not ready to give up on the State takeover, and I certainly do not wish for the State to give up on Providence. Instead, I want to see the State live up to its initial promises, and to make all the necessary commitments of resources and effort to see this through successfully. I am working with my Senate colleagues to develop legislation that will at least begin to address these complex issues.