November 19, 2023 Letter

As we prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday, this week’s letter discusses the Health Equity Zones program and the progress of the special commission studying the Providence Public Schools.

A.   Health Equity Zones

The Health Equity Zones (HEZ) program began in 2015 to address the unfortunate correlation of poor health outcomes with economically disadvantaged communities. In contrast to traditional programs in which the State provides direct service to a community based on a State-identified need, the HEZ program builds capacity within communities for members to identify their priorities and gain resources to address them. On Thursday night, the Senate Finance Committee reviewed the program from the perspective of Department of Health sponsors and the “backbone agencies” that support the 15 HEZ’s currently in operation.

Each HEZ is centered around a particular neighborhood, such as South Providence. The State develops a partnership with a nonprofit “backbone agency” which devotes staff to working with residents to engage them in decisions to address a health need, while also providing resources to support a solution. The East Providence HEZ collaborates with residents to bring community health workers to local schools that provide behavioral support to children and families. The Newport HEZ works with residents to increase their engagement with City government, thereby amplifying their voice in municipal decisions that affect their neighborhood.

Through the course of the hearing, Committee members identified two challenges with this program. First, the program has relied predominantly on federal funds that are not expected to continue in future years. Second, it is not immediately clear how to evaluate the success of these programs, as the long-range goal of increasing community capacity usually is a contributing factor to the successful outcomes for the community, rather than the exclusive source as can happen with a direct-service State program. We will be checking in with them again later in the budget cycle.

B.    The Providence Public Schools

Last week, the Senate special commission studying the Providence Public Schools concluded its investigative phase, having heard from the public and from nine educational experts. The Senate charged the Commission with researching and making recommendations in the areas of (1) labor-management relations, (2) professional standards, (3) school-based flexibility and (4) accountability for educators. You can review the testimony by clicking on this link, and the documents submitted by clicking here.

We learned, unsurprisingly, that there are a range of views regarding the most effective types of legislation, and that even the best legislation cannot magically transform the Providence public schools. With that said, the experts identified several promising areas where Rhode Island’s laws diverge from successful alternatives in Massachusetts and elsewhere, and suggested that changing Rhode Island’s laws to other states’ “best practices” can support Providence’s progress in the four areas identified in the Senate’s charge.

In future meetings, Commission members will discuss our investigation. I look forward to the opportunity to learn from my fellow Commissioners, just as I have learned from the public and from the experts. Members of the public clearly stated their desire to regain local control of the Providence Public Schools. With that said, the State took over the schools to achieve sustainable improvements that can provide a foundation for greater success than had been achieved prior to the takeover. I am hopeful the Commission will propose legislation that can support a return of the Providence Public Schools to local control in a fixed period of time with a stronger foundation to provide a quality public education to all Providence children.

Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, and one that I cherish. I hope you all can join family and friends to celebrate the blessings for which we are grateful.