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What’s Missing from the Commissioner’s PPSD Takeover Proposal

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On August 8, 2019, Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Angélica Infante-Green issued a “Proposal for Decision and Order Establishing Control Over the Providence Public School District and Reconstituting Providence Public Schools,” following the Rhode Island Council on Elementary and Secondary Education granting her the authority to initiate a takeover process on July 23.

The Commissioner’s proposal clocks in at 122 pages, primarily laying out the legal justification for the takeover under Rhode Island’s Crowley Act. The terms of the [Proposed] Order of Control and Reconstitution itself take up only two and a half double spaced pages. The section of the Crowley Act itself, Rhode Island General Laws § 16-7.1-5(a) is a single paragraph. Both are excerpted at length at the end of this post.

The Commissioner proposes that she and her successors should have complete authority over the Providence Public Schools (PPS) into the indefinite future, with no accountability or oversight, deciding the district’s goals, the plan to meet those goals, the assessment of progress toward those goals, and the sole authority to decide when, if ever, her office might yield its power back to the elected city government.

A list of elements missing from the Commissioner’s proposal follows:

Goals

The Commissioner proposes that the authority to takeover the PPS should be granted and agreed to by the city without first stating, even in general terms, what the goals of the takeover are. The proposal implies that the Commissioner seeks authority to run a school district without knowing what her goals will be. More likely, she would prefer not to state those goals prior to being granted unchecked authority.


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At this point, we only know that the Commissioner proposes that the state takeover might end when the Commissioner finds that “substantial progress has been made.” Are we talking about progress on the standard statistics — test scores, graduation, attendance and suspension rates, etc? Will the goals include the full range of issues raised in the recent Johns Hopkins report and community forums?

Beyond that, will the Commissioner’s goals include consideration for the City of Providence as a whole? Will financial sustainability and the long-term fiscal health of the district be a goal or priority? We honestly do not know, and Providence’s long history of both short-lived unsustained reforms and inside deals which incur crippling long-term fiscal obligations should make the City Council particularly wary.

Oversight and Accountability

There is no requirement for any formal ongoing reporting to Providence’s Mayor, City Council or PPS School Board or Superintendent, let alone the parent or student organizations, business groups and the community at large.

In this context it is worth reading paragraph 6 of the proposal in full which explains that the Commissioner and State Turnaround Superintendent alone will both set ongoing goals and evaluate how they are doing.

The Commissioner and State Turnaround Superintendent and/or other designees may jointly develop additional components of the plan and shall jointly develop annual goals for each component of the Turnaround Plan. The State Turnaround Superintendent and/or other designee(s) shall be accountable for meeting the goals of the Turnaround Plan. The Commissioner and the State Turnaround Superintendent and/or other designees shall annually evaluate the progress and results of the Turnaround Plan.

The middle sentence in that paragraph is most remarkable. While the State Turnaround Superintendent “shall serve at the Commissioner’s pleasure” and “the Commissioner shall have final decision making authority over any issue” the text is explicit that accountability for the success of the plan does not lie with the Commissioner, but with the State Turnaround Superintendent or other designees.

In short, the Commissioner is very explicitly and purposefully demanding unchecked authority without accountability.

The Crowley Act specifies that the board of regents (now the Board of Education) shall take control of schools that have not improved. In this case, it seems that the Board of Education has completely abdicated their oversight authority and delegated all authority to the Commissioner. The Commissioner’s proposal makes no mention whatsoever of any oversight role for the Board of Education and implies that she and her successors will be no more directly responsible to the state board for Providence’s performance than the superintendent of any other district in Rhode Island.

An Ending

It is also important at the beginning to give some indication of what the end might look like, including regarding test scores. In round numbers, in elementary and middle school, proficiency on the RICAS test in English and Math runs around 15 percent. We can do better! But how much better?

Lawrence, Massachusetts is being held out by the Commissioner and others as an example of a successful turnaround. After seven years their proficiency rate has gone from about 15 percent to 30 percent. Would that be an appropriate goal? If not, should we regard Lawrence as a role model? Is it important to keep in mind that the vaunted Massachusetts education system runs around 50 percent proficiency statewide on the MCAS in elementary and middle school?

The Commissioner’s proposal inverts the standard logic of school reform, where continued low performance results in a change in leadership. The corollary to returning control of the schools to the city when “substantial progress has been made” is that the Commissioner reserves for herself and her successors the privilege of maintaining control indefinitely if her leadership and management does not lead to improvement. This is a continuation of the pattern of the Commissioner seeking to exclude herself from the standards of accountability that she would apply to all others in the system.

We Must Demand Better

Commissioner Infante-Green has made an opening proposal to the City of Providence: Give me complete control with no accountability, checks or recourse. To say “No, that’s not good enough, try again” is not to rule out the possibility of a successful intervention by the state in the Providence Schools. Demanding a thoughtful, fair and considerate proposal with a clear statement of goals, appropriate oversight and ongoing formal processes is the essence of good governance.


Appendices:

From the Paul W Crowley Rhode Island Student Investment Initiative [See Title 16 Chapter 97 – The Rhode Island Board of Education Act] § 16-7.1-5. Intervention and support for failing schools.

If after a three (3) year period of support there has not been improvement in the education of students as determined by objective criteria to be developed by the board of regents, then there shall be progressive levels of control by the department of elementary and secondary education over the school and/or district budget, program, and/or personnel. This control by the department of elementary and secondary education may be exercised in collaboration with the school district and the municipality. If further needed, the school shall be reconstituted. Reconstitution responsibility is delegated to the board of regents and may range from restructuring the school’s governance, budget, program, personnel, and/or may include decisions regarding the continued operation of the school. The board of regents shall assess the district’s capacity and may recommend the provision of additional district, municipal and/or state resources. If a school or school district is under the board of regents’ control as a result of actions taken by the board pursuant to this section, the local school committee shall be responsible for funding that school or school district at the same level as in the prior academic year increased by the same percentage as the state total of school aid is increased.


From the [PROPOSED] ORDER OF CONTROL AND RECONSTITUTION

  1. The Commissioner shall control the budget, program, and personnel of PPSD and its schools and, if further needed, the Commissioner shall reconstitute PPSD schools, which may include restructuring the individual school’s governance, budget, program, personnel and/or decisions related to the continued operation of the school. The Commissioner shall exercise all the powers and authorities delegated by the Council to the Commissioner and all powers of RIDE over the budget, program and personnel of PPSD and over the school’s governance and facilities. The Commissioner shall also exercise all powers and authorities currently exercised by the Providence School Board and Superintendent (Acting, Interim or Permanent), as well as all powers and authorities currently exercised by the Mayor of Providence, and the Providence City Council as it pertains to PPSD and its schools.
  2. This control may be exercised in collaboration with PPSD and the City of Providence.
  3. The Commissioner may retain a State Turnaround Superintendent and/or other designee(s) each of whom shall serve at the Commissioner’s pleasure and may replace the PPSD Superintendent (Acting, Interim or Permanent). The Commissioner may delegate to the State Turnaround Superintendent and/or other designee(s) any or all of the powers delegated to her by the Council on July 23, 2019 and any or all of her powers as Commissioner of Education to carry out Paragraph 1 of this Order; provided, however, that the Commissioner shall have final decision making authority over any issue identified by the Commissioner.
  4. Upon appointment, the State Turnaround Superintendent and/or other designee(s) shall immediately begin a process to co-create a Turnaround Plan with the Commissioner. Before, during, and after the development of such a Turnaround Plan, the State Turnaround Superintendent and/or other designee(s) shall engage, be accessible, and be responsive to students, parents, families, educators and the public broadly. This engagement may include, but not be limited to, public forums and current existing structures such as parent organizations and community advisory boards, as well as any new undefined structures at the discretion of the State Turnaround Superintendent and/or other designee(s) and the Commissioner. This process of developing a Turnaround Plan shall also include an opportunity for public engagement for the purpose of soliciting recommendations for the content and ultimate goals of the Turnaround Plan from a broad variety of stakeholders, including school leaders, educators, students, parents, families, city leaders and community members. 
  5. The State Turnaround Superintendent and/or other designee(s) shall oversee the implementation of the Turnaround Plan for PPSD, provided, however, that the Commissioner shall have final decision-making authority over any issue identified by the Commissioner. The State Turnaround Superintendent and/or other designee(s) shall be deemed to act in the name of the Commissioner for the purpose of carrying out Paragraph 1 of this Order and shall exercise the power to do all acts and take all measures necessary or proper upon all matters embraced by the Turnaround Plan.
  6. The Commissioner and State Turnaround Superintendent and/or other designees may jointly develop additional components of the plan and shall jointly develop annual goals for each component of the Turnaround Plan. The State Turnaround Superintendent and/or other designee(s) shall be accountable for meeting the goals of the Turnaround Plan. The Commissioner and the State Turnaround Superintendent and/or other designees shall annually evaluate the progress and results of the Turnaround Plan.
  7. The Turnaround Plan shall be authorized for an initial period of three years from the effective date of this Order. The Commissioner shall evaluate the progress of the Turnaround Plan and will decide, at her discretion, whether to continue the turnaround under an adjusted plan, extend the current Turnaround Plan, or if substantial progress has been made, return control of PPSD and its schools, including decisions over budget, programs and personnel, to the appropriate bodies within the City of Providence.
  8. Throughout the duration of this Order, the City of Providence and the local school committee shall have all of the responsibilities set forth in R.I. Gen. Laws § 16-7.1-5, a copy of which is attached.

Harry Tuttle is a pen name for a Providence Public Schools parent and teacher.

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