Representative Sanchez: Speaker Shekarchi is wrong to oppose investing in our schools

State Representative Enrique Sanchez writes that Speaker Shekarchi is standing in the way of improving state educational outcomes.

Rhode Island News: Representative Sanchez: Speaker Shekarchi is wrong to oppose investing in our schools

January 31, 2023, 11:52 am

By Representative Enrique Sanchez

For years, the people of our state have been crying out for proper education funding. Finally, we have a proposal for a small but meaningful investment. Unfortunately, House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi has yet to come on board. I disagree with his policy view on this issue.

In his newly released budget, Governor Daniel McKee proposes a package of policy changes that add up to a definite step forwards. He proposes to fully fund the multilingual learners and high cost special education categorical aid programs. He proposes to raise the student success factor from 40% to 42%. He proposes additional support for communities facing financial losses due to charter school seats. He proposes a smart program to add aid to help address the costs of educating students experiencing homelessness. He also proposes a statutorily required adjustment to the poverty calculation that, although suboptimal in certain respects, will still represent progress. To help pay for these investments, he proposes ending the hold harmless aid program. In net, that adds up to a significant increase. Although not enough to solve our schools’ funding crisis, it will definitely help.

Critically, these investments will partially ameliorate the long-standing injustice of students in our low-income communities receiving less per capita education funding than their wealthier peers. Low-income students face myriad obstacles. It is hard to learn when you are hungry. It is hard to do three hours of homework when you have to work after school. It is hard to learn when you have been poisoned by lead and the other toxins our society has dumped on poor neighborhoods. It is hard to learn math in English when you speak French and Haitian Kreyòl, but you have not yet finished making English your third language. Our low-income students need additional investments to deal with these challenges, not less. Yet less is what they get. This package of investments would not change that, but it would mitigate those disparities. That matters. For instance, although Providence was bracing for significant reductions in state education aid due to a major expansion of charter school seats, our capital city would actually get slightly more money this year than last, due to McKee’s reforms.

I often disagree with Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, whom I perceive to be excessively conservative. She advocated for these investments, and I want to thank her. In fact, strong support from conservative Democrats makes the Speaker’s opposition more perplexing. Even the significantly more conservative Senate President has signaled support. Governor McKee is especially known for his conservative views on education and budgetary policy. Conservative support makes sense. Even many avowed Republicans believe education should be a budgetary priority. For who can deny that our young people matter?

Before McKee had even finalized his proposal, the Speaker came out against any changes to the funding formula, telling the Providence Journal, “I don’t think [this is] the year… because the data we would have to make any kind of adjustment to the formula is skewed because we [had] three years of COVID.”

This argument troubles me. Yes, the pandemic has hit our students hard. Attendance, test scores, and morale have all cratered. Although infamously difficult to quantify, student learning has almost certainly taken a serious hit. These impacts will last many years beyond the end of COVID-19 – an end that may not come for quite some time.

Are we to wait not only until the pandemic has ended but also wait until the COVID-19 signal has finally faded from the data? Are we to condemn a generation of students because our government chooses to avoid doing more difficult math? The implications should trouble us all.

We have a moral imperative. Pandemic learning loss only heightens the case that our schools need more investment.

Perhaps most concerningly, this would be the fourth time Speaker Shekarchi has blocked vital education reforms. When two charter schools with disturbing discipline practices had planned an expansion that would significantly defund the Providence Public Schools, even the Senate approved legislation to save our students from this fate. Speaker Shekarchi killed it. When even the Senate passed a constitutional right to education, it would have reversed the infamous Pawtucket v. Sundlun decision that denies our students the constitutional protections Massachusetts students enjoy. Speaker Shekarchi killed it. When already weak legislation passed the Senate last year that still contained a feeble path to eventually end the devastating Providence takeover, even that slim hope drowned as the House watered down the bill. Speaker Shekarchi killed it.

It is time to break this pattern. Speaker Shekarchi can say yes to Governor McKee’s proposed investments in our schools. He can turn his prodigious talents to fighting for our students. They deserve it, for they are our future.