RIPEC report says Rhode Island schools are in crisis

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PROVIDENCE – Rhode Island’s public education system is in crisis.

It was the conclusion of a comprehensive 68-page history of public education reform in Rhode Island conducted by the Rhode Public Expenditure Council, a nonprofit research organization based at Bryant University.

Titled “Improving Rhode Island’s K-12 Schools: Where Do We Go From Here?” the report illustrates the reforms that made progress and those that showed promise but were ultimately abandoned.

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This reinforces problems that have been well known for decades:

Students perform poorly on state tests.

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Recent trends in student and teacher absenteeism rates are alarming. In 2020, more than 25% of students were chronically absent.

Achievement gaps, particularly between white students and Latino students, are wider in Rhode Island than they are nationally, and this comes at a time when the percentage of Latino students has almost doubled between 2001 and 2021.

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The way education is managed is “fragmented, with no clear lines of responsibility or accountability”. Although the General Assembly has ultimate authority over education, it has delegated policy making to the K-12 council.

But, said RIPEC, the statutory powers of the K-12 board and the state Department of Education are relatively limited.

Meanwhile, members of the Council for Elementary and Secondary Education only serve for three-year terms, limiting the next governor’s ability to shape policy.

“The result is a system where each authority depends on other parts of the system to carry out its responsibilities,” RIPEC said.

A possible solution? Ask the governor to appoint the commissioner of education, as he does with other cabinet appointees.

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“It’s our number one societal problem,” RIPEC Chairman and CEO Michael DiBiase said Wednesday. “It’s more important than housing and mental health. It doesn’t attract much attention. We try to put education at the top of the agenda. It’s a system that has worked the same way for generations.

RIPEC concludes with a series of recommendations that are realistic in the current political context of Rhode Island. The report, for example, does not call for broad school choice options, or the return of high-stakes testing, which was a graduation requirement under a previous state test.

Schools need more state support under the school funding formula, says the report, which has not undergone major revisions since its adoption in 2007. And poorer school districts deserve even more support.

The formula is based in part on a district’s student enrollments. Last year, the state opted not to cut aid to districts, despite declining enrollment due to the lingering effects of the pandemic. RIPEC urged the state to use this $68 million to revamp the formula.

The funding formula should also include a per pupil premium for English language learners, the report says.

The report also recommends spending more money on teacher training. For nearly 10 years, the Ministry of Education has had a dedicated category of aid for professional development.

Hire more teachers, especially teachers of color, the report suggests. RIPEC recommends increasing the salaries of new teachers, either through salaries, bonuses or loan cancellations. Providence, for example, has a loan forgiveness program for teachers of color. RIPEC also recommends re-establishing a welcome or support program for new teachers.

Spend more money on training educators to teach English language learners, whose numbers are growing at an “astonishing” rate, according to RIPEC. Teacher preparation programs should be required to provide training in this area to all teachers, regardless of subject.

Charter schools should be expanded, but RIPEC is not asking for more school choice, such as school vouchers. On the contrary, the association invites traditional neighborhoods to experiment and innovate rather than to propose a single model.

“Charters are the only bright spot for disadvantaged students,” DiBiase said. “We would like to see more choice in public schools. We try to come to terms with the realities of our culture and what we can do with broad consensus.

“The recommendations are achievable,” said Lauren Green, chief executive of public relations firm New Harbor Group. “It’s not a moonshot. It’s a holistic look at the whole system.

Linda Borg covers education for The Journal.

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