I hope you are enjoying May Day. This week’s letter will discuss Senate hearings on (1) school takeover reform, and (2) supporting the State’s “safety net” of services to our most vulnerable Rhode Islanders.
1. Reforming State Takeovers of Schools and School Districts
Last Wednesday, the Senate Education Committee reviewed Bill S-2838, which would reform the State’s takeovers of individual schools and school districts, as described in this summary. The testimony at the hearing focused on the bill’s establishment of a board of trustees to provide oversight for the current State takeover of the Providence Public Schools in certain specific areas, including the hiring of senior administrators. While the written testimony supported the bill’s plans to create accountability and engagement where they do not currently exist, the Superintendent and other witnesses stated their opposition based on a two-part argument. First, they argued that the proposed board would add an unnecessary additional layer of oversight. Second, they argued that this additional layer would undermine the progress that has occurred to date through takeover.
I disagree with both parts of this argument. While the School Department currently meets with various groups from time to time, none of those groups exercise oversight. There are two existing bodies which, under State law, have the potential authority to exercise oversight, but one of them (the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education) specifically refused to take on this responsibility when asked, while the other (the Providence School Board) was officially stripped of this responsibility by the Commissioner. As a result of this lack of oversight, a Superintendent in 2020 hired an administrator (Mr. Alege) with a past history of endangering children’s safety and who, after the Providence Superintendent hired him, proceeded to harm our children in the exact same way. I therefore also disagree with the critics’ second argument, that creating this layer of protection for our children will undermine the takeover. In fact, I believe the opposite to be true, for if the Providence Public Schools does not correct the current lack of oversight, and it hires another administrator who engages in misconduct, then such a repeated failure could bring about a disgraceful end, not only to the careers of the administrator and Superintendent (as happened last time), but also to the takeover itself.
For these reasons, I will continue my discussions with the School Department to work together to solve this problem. For example, if either the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education or the Providence School Board had the will (in the case of the Council) or the authority (in the case of the School Board) to assume this responsibility, then it will become unnecessary to create a new board of overseers.
2. Mending the Safety Net
On Thursday night, the Senate Finance Committee reviewed several bills designed to address the underpayment of different providers of vital medical and social services to our most vulnerable, through Medicaid and other social support programs. The hearing lasted for five hours, and many of the accounts of Rhode Islanders who could not get help, or agencies who lost their dedicated staff to higher paying positions in hospitals or even fast food restaurants, were heartbreaking. One witness aptly reminded the Committee of the words of the late Hubert Humphrey, who stated that “the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
As I explained in my letters of November 28 and December 19, the State allocated federal funds to begin to fill these funding gaps on a short-term basis, but the longer-term picture remains unresolved. The Senate Finance Committee reviewed some bills that proposed addressing this problem by creating commissions to review reimbursement rates and bring them up to adequate levels over the next two years, following a statutory model in Colorado. While this model contains several elements that could help address the crisis we face in Rhode Island, it appears that the current bills will benefit from further refinement in the legislative process. For example, Common Cause submitted testimony that asserted that the proposed legislatively-appointed rate-setting commission would carry out an executive function in violation of the Rhode Island Constitution’s “separation of powers” clause. I believe Common Cause raises a valid issue, which can be addressed either by changing the commission’s role to be strictly advisory, or by changing the process by which commissioners are appointed. I am optimistic that these and other concerns can and will be addressed in the coming weeks. With that said, we will need to roll up our sleeves in the coming years to determine the amount of additional resources this re-commitment to the vulnerable will require, as well as a way to assemble those resources.