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RI Experts on the Biggest Challenges Facing Public Education

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


This Friday, education experts, along with leaders in the public and nonprofit sectors will convene at the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University for a symposium on what is being billed as "the civil rights issue of the 21st century -- adequacy and equity and the State of Education in Rhode Island."

The event will feature as its keynote Michael Rebell, Columbia Law School Professor and national expert in equity in education, the role of the courts in institutional reform litigations and social reform.  Rebell will be addressing "why constitutional changes are the next step in creating adequacy and equity" and raise the question as to whether the right to a quality education should be more formally protected by special legislation in the state constitution.

"I think using the word "constitution" is a provocative way to look at how we fund, implement, regulate education in Rhode Island," said Anna-Cano Morales, Chairwoman of the Central Falls Public Schools Board of Trustees and Director of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University.

Pawtucket Schools Superintendent Deborah Cylke, who will be joining Cano-Morales on the panel on Friday, said that equitable funding was at the core of the issue. "The reality is, certain cities are distressed, or whose property values are not as high, I know each town has a different capacity to fund education. Your quality of education should not be dependent on your zip code."

GoLocal spoke with representatives from the Rhode Island education community taking part in Friday's symposium, including the Hassenfeld Institute's Gary Sasse, Tim Duffy with the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, and Eva-Marie Mancuso, RIDE Chair of the Board of Education - and asked what they saw as the most pressing challenges currently in public schools in the state.

Education Leaders on 3 Biggest Issues Facing the State BELOW

Early in November, the Rhode Island Department of Education reported that for "the first time in the history of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Rhode Island students scored above the national average in all four assessments in mathematics and reading, based on the percentage of students who performed at or above the proficient level."

RIDE however acknowledged, "Despite the positive results for the state as a whole, significant achievement gaps remain in place among Rhode Island students. Although Black students, Hispanic students, and economically disadvantaged students have improved significantly over the past four years, particularly in mathematics, their performance on almost all assessments remains approximately 20 percentage points below the state average, based on percent proficient or better. Over the past four years, the performance of students with disabilities and of English Learners has either declined or improved at a much lower rate than the state average."

Cano-Morales spoke to the recent gains being made in Central Falls, in light of challenging circumstances. "There's a difference between educating a student in Central Falls, and educating a student in the suburbs," said Cano-Morales.

Addressing the financial needs of the school district, Cano-Morales said, "I think that the funding formula is going to be a topic of discussion Friday, and seeing if when it's full enacted, it's equitable. For instance, our funding formula doesn't take into account schools, like Central Falls, that are in transformation."

Cano-Morales, Cylke, Sasse, Duffy, and Muncuso will take part in a panel discussion on Friday entitled, "Does Rhode Island Have the Resources Necessary to Meet Educational Goals?" The symposium will be addressing whether the current education system creates inequities in civil rights issues -- and whether the state constitution reflects the needs of the education system. 

Constitutional Questions

Keynote speaker Rebell touched upon his talking points for Friday's presentation with GoLocal.  

"I'm going to be speaking about the important role that courts should play, in conjunction with the legislature and the executive branch, in developing and implementing fair and adequate school funding systems," said Rebell, who serves as the Executive Director for the Campaign for Educational Equity,

"I'll also be reviewing constitutional language in a number of states and some experiences with the use of constitutional amendments to improve the language in state constitutions in order to ensure that all students receive a meaningful educational opportunity."

One of the nation's foremost authorities on the education adequacy movement in the United States, Rebell has pioneered the legal theory and strategy of educational adequacy.  In the last 15 years, this legal strategy has "proven successful" in almost 75% of the cases challenging a state's failure to provide students with a sound, basic education. Mr. Rebell has also litigated numerous class-action lawsuits 

In addition, former Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice Robert Flanders will be giving a history of education legal reforms in Rhode Island to open the symposium.  



Related Slideshow: RI Experts on the Biggest Issues Facing Public Education

On Friday November 22, the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University, the Latino Policy Institute of Roger Williams University, the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, the Providence Student Union, and RI-CAN: Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now will host Rhode Island leaders in the public and nonprofit sectors for a symposium on "the civil rights issue of the 21st century, adequacy and equity and the State of Education in Rhode Island."

Weighing in on the the "three biggest factors" facing education in the state today are symposium participatnts Gary Sasse, Founding Director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Leadership; Christine Lopes Metcalfe, Executive Director of RI-CAN; Anna Cano-Morales, Chairwoman of the Board of Trustees, Central Falls Public Schools and Director, Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University; Tim Duffy, Executive Director, RI Association of School Committees; and Deborah Cylke, Superintendent of Pawtucket Public Schools.  

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"Provide a state constitutional guarantee that all children will have access to  an education that will prepare them to meet high performance standards and be successful adults.

Bridge the gap between the educational achievement of majority and minority students.  This will require the implementation of a comprehensive agenda for quality education in Rhode Island’s inner cities."

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"Revisit school governance and clearly define the roles and responsibilities of the state, school districts , neighborhood schools, and school teachers and school administrators.  Develop and implement a system to hold schools responsible for student outcomes."

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"Build a consensus and buy in of all stakeholders around  the education reform initiatives being advanced by the Board of Education."

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"Set high expectations and raise our standards across the state for anyone that contributes to the success of our students. From adopting the Common Core to discussing rigorous teacher evaluations, conversations around creating a culture of high expectations have to be at the center of the work."

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"Expand opportunities and start earlier - we must ensure that all kids have access to a high performing public school of their choice, which includes full-day kindergarten."

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"School facilities - with an aging infrastructure, underutilized buildings and the need to provide fair funding for school facilities for all public school students regardless of the public school they attend, this needs to be a top issue tackled by the RI General Assembly in 2014."

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"Meet the academic potential of all students but especially with regards to urban schools students -- 3 out of 4 are Latinos in Providence, Central Falls, and Pawtucket." 

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"Connect through specific best practices the academic successes of our students to careers jobs. Investing in schools is economic development as a whole for Rhode Island. " 

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"Increase the access to -- and completion of -- higher education and post- secondary opportunities.  Poverty? Struggling families? Education and access to careers and competitive wages is the best antidote."

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"Providing adequate funding is critical -- and there are going to be pressures on the state budget, which mean stresses to meet the education funding formula.  With the predictions of the state's projected loss of revenue with the casinos in MA, education funding could be on the cutting board, and we need to ensure that it's not.  Do we need to look at strengthening the language of the constitution to guarantee funding?"

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"Implementing the common core standards will provide continuity -- and comparison -- between states now.  With over 40 states involved, we're embarking a new set of standards here."

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"Accountability and assessing student performance -- how that it's driven by the common core, we'll be able to compare the best districts in RI against the best districts in say MA.  That's the intent of the Common Core is a standardization of how we hold the system accountable."

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"Issue one is quality.  Your quality of education should not be dependent on your zip code.  And the reality is, certain cities are distressed, or whose property values are not as high, I know each town has a different capacity to fund education. There's an absolute, clear relationship between the quality of public schools, and economic development of states. There's irrefutable evidence that quality public schools can make states more competitive."

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"Issue two is equality.  In West Warwick and Providence, the per pupil spending is around $16K.  In Pawtucket it's $12.9.  What's wrong with that picture? If I'm in charge of overseeing that my students are college ready, they need to be adequate funding.  A difference of $3000 per pupil?  We're talking in the tens of millions of dollars -- more like $25 million in this case.  An exemplary school district is Montgomery County, MD -- they have roughly the same number of students, around 145,000 -- there's one funding figure per pupil. There's equitable funding for all kids."

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"Issue three is Infrastructure.  A critical issue is whether the state is going to lift its moratorium in 2014 for renovations for older schools, ore new construction.  If that moratorium is not lifted, and those funds are not available, it is critical to us here in Pawtucket. The average of my schools is 66 years, I've got 3 that celebrate 100 years this year. These old schools have good bones, but they need to be maintained.  These are assets -- and this is all interrelated with the funding formula."


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Stop the madness! STFup!!

Comment #1 by lupe fiasco on 2013 11 20

Hope they discuss college tuitions too. $50,000 per year is obscene.

Comment #2 by Lorraine Botts on 2013 11 20

Could RI for once stop having "experts and leaders" discuss a topic and try a different approach involving parents in a process proven to be effective (Portsmouth, NH)?

This excerpt form the open Democracy blog of Nov. 20, 2013 tells the story RI should be paying attention to.

"As Portsmouth’s demographics changed, the city’s elementary schools became unbalanced, with two under-enrolled schools and another that was bursting with students.

“Changing the way schools work, especially elementary schools, is… probably one of the most intense things a city can go through,” recalls city manager John Bohenko. Local lawyer Jim Noucas puts it more bluntly: “Tackling the issue was political suicide,” he said. In early public discussions regarding redistricting, some residents resorted to painful insinuations about other people’s class and culture. Recalls Noucas, “People stood up at public hearings and denigrated the elementary school that was literally ‘on the other side of the tracks.’” While parents argued, leaders equivocated, and students suffered, the issue went unresolved for a decade.

Desperate for a solution, the school board appointed a redistricting committee in 2000 that discovered a technique called “study circles.” Organizers rallied 105 citizen volunteers to participate in a series of small-group meetings, a diverse group that represented the demographic make-up of the city. Rather than diving into decision-making, the study circles encouraged a slow and careful approach to deliberation. First, the groups visited all three schools to ensure excellent information gathering. They also spent hours sharing stories as parents and neighbors, breaking down stereotypes and building trust and understanding.

Then, when the groups were ready to discuss policy options, the issues were framed openly. Rather than polarizing “option A against option B,” the study circles talked about “what issues…the redistricting committee should consider in balancing the enrollments of the schools.” This inclusive framing generated innovative ideas and common ground. In the final phase of the process, the groups reported back to a school board that had been involved in the process from the beginning and was therefore more open to hearing their ideas. The board developed a proposal to help balance the quality of the three schools backed by $2 million of improvements, which the 105 “ambassadors” explained to parents and neighbors. The proposal received broad voter support and was approved, ending a decade-long destructive stalemate. A “slow” process proved to be the fastest route to success.

Over the past fifteen years, Portsmouth has used study circles to address many more issues including school bullying, the city’s master plan, racism, and environmental sustainability. Citizens have created “Portsmouth Listens,” a committee of volunteers trained in facilitating the public dialogues that are now integral to addressing the city’s toughest issues. Small-group discussions are now used at election time as an alternative to divisive debates between candidates. And hardest to describe but perhaps most important, many of Portsmouth’s residents sense a fundamental shift, speaking of an increase in civic pride, an improvement in public participation, and heightened expectations of what democratic participation can offer. As city councilor Chris Dwyer noted, “we’ve raised the bar.”

Portsmouth’s experience is not unique: it represents a new generation of slow democracy experiments. For example, participatory budgeting techniques are inspiring renewed citizen energy in cities around the globe. Scholars and practitioners have dramatically increased the study and practice of dialogue and deliberation both nationally and internationally. This new wave has the potential to transform both individuals and communities."

Comment #3 by John McGrath on 2013 11 20

There is no uniform code of discipline in public education..without strict rules of behavior there is no learning..the educators are being schooled by the students.Their unruliness in the hallways goes right into the classrooms and poisons the atmosphere for those who want to learn... teachers are afraid of the students when it should be the other way around.

Comment #4 by LENNY BRUCE on 2013 11 20

The Portsmouth ref is right on. I was going to suggest RI look all the way across the border to MA. MA also took a different course in 2000 and formed an education infrastructure that makes them the highest rated in the USA.
It's almost like RI is in another land, we are so small in our thinking, we have such inbred polarizing attitudes and we lack responsible parties that are to be held accountable. Look at the experts above, they are all independent in their missions, there is very little focus on results by working with what you have. It is always we need to make universal changes to redistribute resources so everything is equal (hmm, where have I heard that, oh ya, I hear it everyday on the radio and TV). There is no way to take and egg beater and blend all kids together in an all together teaching environment with a blended teacher, it is impossible. Do what other successful states have done, LOOK at yourselves as an education provider that has to be flexible enough to adjust to the needs of the students in your schools. The kids live there, their families live there and they the kids should be getting the best teaching for their needs there, not in the next town or city.

Comment #5 by Gary Arnold on 2013 11 20

all of these suggestions work when you have engaged parents that provide structure and stress the importance of education.

NONE of these suggestions work when you have parents that don't care.

that being said, the school has to almost be looked at as a place "for certain students" where structure is provided to a students life. and these students need a school day that starts early and ends at 6-7pm at night.

Comment #6 by john paycheck on 2013 11 20

Set high standards and graduation requirements.Open up to competition from the free market and let parents decide whats the best education for their child.

Comment #7 by michael riley on 2013 11 20

The teachers union is the biggest problem. Offer the teachers a 20% raise to get rid of it.

Comment #8 by Odd Job on 2013 11 20

The State school funding formula which is neutral shows Central Falls is capable of contributing $12 million a year towards their own school costs.

Unfortunately for the rest of the State stuck paying their entire tab, Central Falls only raised property taxes, aside from the receivers one time tax increase, by only 3.2% over 20 years. The average property tax increase in the rest of the State over that same time period was almost 135%.

The formula doesn't look at whether or not they raised the property taxes.

Comment #9 by Jim D on 2013 11 20

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.