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In June 2019, a team from Johns Hopkins issued a stinging report on the Providence public schools, detailing the many ways the “system” wasn’t serving education at any level – students, teachers, workforce development and so on.  In May 1993, the PRObe Commission (PROvidence blueprint for education) issued a precursor to that report, with positive recommendations to reform problems outed by their research.  The similarity of the two reports’ findings, fully 36 years apart, is clinically depressing.  

But most upsetting is the status quo’s ability to stay firmly entrenched from then to now.  At great expense – RI has the 9th highest per pupil expenditure in the nation – we have dragged generations of kids down a long road to the same crummy place.  

Both reports put the teachers contract front and center.  Its 64 single-spaced pages micromanage the life out of the schools’ ability to function flexibly.  But the union leadership is correct in saying that it is not the problem.  

It is the hub attached to many strong spokes – state legislation, mayoral control, RI Department of Education regulations, the school board, the governor’s office, other union contracts (secretaries, teaching assistants) and more.  

The spokes plug into a rim of money and power that keeps the cycle of educational nonperformance rutting the road to nowhere.  Laws and regulations reinforce the wheel’s power to withstand any demands for substantive change.  

As a result, the system suffers from what Phillip Howard calls The Rule of Nobody.  He says that the law operates “not as a framework that enhances free choice but as an instruction manual that replaces free choice.”  Crushed by bureaucracies, good ideas die or emerge severely compromised.  

Hopkins articulates it this way:  “Providence Public School District is overburdened with multiple, overlapping sources of governance and bureaucracy with no clear domains of authority and very little scope for transformative change. The resulting structures paralyze action, stifle innovation, and create dysfunction and inconsistency across the district. In the face of the current governance structure, stakeholders understandably expressed little to no hope for serious reform.”

Structurally, no one can get their hands on the wheel to steer.  The state take-over doesn’t matter.  While the occasional head rolls, nothing changes.  Blame abounds, but really no one is to blame.  We all tolerate the status quo.  And segregating Providence’s problems from the rest of the state lets the other districts rest easy even though they’re not doing much better.  

Does RI have the guts to give flexibility to those who educate the City kids while risking comparable changes in other districts?  

We’ve come to a dreadful fork in the road.  Down one way we would face our failure by tackling the system’s immobility with what would likely be called “nuclear” options.  PRObe’s final and last-gasp recommendation is #39:  “Explore Alternatives for Radical, Permanent Change.”  It cites “CHOICE” (their caps) as a viable course.  

Today, “choice” includes expanding charter schools, allowing cross-district schooling (like MA’s METCO program), universal applications where parents and students can rank order their preferences, and other techniques.  At least charters have some autonomy, while hewing to the State’s demands for data and accountability.  

Down the other fork, we would accept our dismal treatment of the urban students by continuing to tinker around the edges, blame whomever, and argue that more money would fix things when historically it hasn’t and won’t.  

Currently, the cycle is unstoppable.  If not school choice, how do you think RI could quit spinning its wheels for another generation of students?  Or two, or three, or…

Julia Steiny blogs at

This piece was first published by the Providence Journal on April 11, 2022