The RI Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) has boldly gone where politicians rarely dare to go. Their recent report, “Improving RI’s K-12 schools: Where do we go from here?,” answers their question with specific, data-rich, and even startling proposals. RIPEC urges, even begs us to act on them now to relieve what they call “RI’s education crisis.”
Refreshingly, the report does not scapegoat Providence. The charts, graphs and comments describe deep structural problems common to all RI’s schools. A highly readable history of public-school management, starting with President Johnson’s 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESSA), provides a national context for the local decisions and events that brought RI to educational gridlock.
Critically, the section on state and local school governance, or lack of it, details the quiet monster that devours all good efforts. Bottom line: no one is in charge. No one is accountable. No agency, office or person has the authority to affect the impotence of our education bureaucracy.
RIPEC strides into this buzzsaw with a concrete, doable solution. But to understand their reasoning, let’s first look at the current K-12 structure. As I summarize their version, count how many cooks are in the decision-making kitchen.
The General Assembly (GA) has final authority for education. That’s 75 people with 75 different opinions and levels of understanding. They hear from myriad lobbyists promoting clients’ special interests. The GA delegates their responsibility to K-12’s overseers, the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education. The council hires the commissioner of education, with broad input, and supervises the RI Department of Education (RIDE). The commissioner and RIDE have limited powers, so they’re largely a regulatory agency. Subject to Senate approval, the governor appoints the members of the council to staggered 3-year terms which, when first taking office, prevent the governor from assembling a team who will implement his/her vision.
With power, responsibility and accountability spread cellophane-thin at the state level, consequential decisions often devolve to local school committees and district administrations. They can not raise taxes and so must go begging to town councils or find existing resources to fund improvement initiatives.
Shift responsibility for education from the GA to the governor’s office to “streamline authorities, clarify responsibilities and improve accountability. … strengthen authority at the state level and consider making the Commissioner of Education an appointee of the governor like other cabinet members.”
Ah. A clear chain of command would flow from the governor’s office to the commissioner to RIDE and finally to the schools. If responsibility for effective governance isn’t rooted in the governor’s office, where does the buck stop?
In early 2020 four Senators introduced a bill to do exactly that. References to the “council,” in S2173, were replaced with “governor.” Those Senators understood that cleaning up the muddle required assigning power and responsibility to the governor, away from the ever-changing GA, council and their many masters. The bill did not pass.
The GA would still be fully involved since they hold the state’s purse strings. Better that they concentrate on the taxpayers’ return on investment than dabble with unenforceable, unfunded mandates, like legislating certain curricula. RI’s financial output for education is enormous, but our return is middling. Why? RI’s excellent data-collection systems will help them help us, the public, understand where problems lie.
The kids badly need us to untie the Gordian knot of overlapping layers of micromanagement. They are suffering. The emerging workforce suffers. Yes, harnessing political will to build functional governance will be tough.
But not impossible – as RIPEC and those foresightful Senators showed us.
This column was first published by the Providence Journal on December 9, 2022