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RI State Report: Education Bills + Chafee Switches Parties

Saturday, June 01, 2013


Keeping in line with GoLocal's focus on education this weekend, this edition of the State Report centers on three pieces of legislation that will have a dramatic impact on the state's educational landscape. Not only will we examine a new law mandating that all school volunteers undergo criminal background checks and another requiring that private post-secondary schools provide record transfers and refunds to students, we'll also take a look at new proposed standards for driver's education courses. Also on the docket, Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s decision to join the Democratic Party and the Senate’s passage of the Biodiesel Heating Oil Act.

Mandatory background checks for school volunteers is now the law

Gov. Lincoln Chafee has signed legislation requiring any current or prospective school volunteers to undergo a state criminal background check.

Current state law requires individuals seeking employment with private school or public school to undergo a criminal background check, but not individuals seeking volunteer positions. According to Rep. Joseph M. McNamara, expanding the scope of background checks is an important way to increase the overall safety of school children.

“As programs that rely on or use volunteers grow in school settings, adding this language to law is the safe and responsible thing to do. We don’t want to stand in the way of volunteerism in schools, but we want to put student safety first,” said McNamara, the bill’s sponsor in the House.

McNamara’s bill, and the companion bill in the Senate were signed into law on Tuesday. The new law takes effect immediately.

Senate approves bill addressing school closures

The Senate approved legislation on Thursday that requires private colleges, universities and other institutions to provide refunds and transfer records for students, and give them 30 days notice in the event of the facility shutting down.

Sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth A. Crowley, the legislation is a response to December’s unexpected closure of the Sawyer School, which left 300 students without access to their academic records and prepaid tuition money. The Sawyer School had two locations in the state, in Providence and Pawtucket, both of which are now closed.

“Higher education is a significant investment of both time and money for students, and we cannot have it so that students risk losing everything by pursuing a degree or certificate,” said Crowley. “This bill ensures that if a school decides to close, students have enough time to get their business in order so they can transfer later.”

A similar law has already been enacted in Connecticut, where the Sawyer School has multiple locations.

GA passes legislation requiring license-training programs to include distracted driving

On Tuesday, the General Assembly passed legislation that would require driving students to be educated on the dangers of distracted driving—which includes making phone calls and sending text messages while driving.

“Our new drivers need to be aware of all the dangers that come with calling, texting or just not paying attention while driving,” said Rep. Joseph M. McNamara, the bill’s sponsor in the House. “We owe it to our students to prepare them for all the dangers of the road. Putting the issue of distracted driving on our license tests will make our drivers more aware of their actions and ensure that our roads are a safe place to drive.”

Under the legislation, the state’s driver’s education program at the Community College of Rhode Island would add the subject of distracting driving to its curriculum. The topic of distracted driving will also be included on state license tests.

“The more cell phones we have, the more distractions there are for our drivers,” said Sen. Michael J. McCaffrey, the bill’s sponsor in the Senate. “We need to make sure all our drivers are aware of the risks posed by these distractions, so they can protect themselves on the road. Driving is the most potentially dangerous thing we do every day, so anyone getting behind the wheel of a motor vehicle has to be aware of and know how to deal with these issues.”

Rhode Island currently has a ban on text messaging while driving, but does not prohibit hand held cell phone use while operating a vehicle.

The House and Senate bills will now head to the Governor’s desk for approval.

Gov. Chafee joins the Democratic Party

Gov. Lincoln Chafee is no longer the only Independent governor in the country. The former Independent and one-time Republican officially joined the Democratic Party on Thursday—stating that his alliance with the Democrats on health care reform and his allegiance with President Barack Obama led to the switch.

“I’ve got a home and it feels good,” said Chafee to photographers and reporters at Warwick City Hall on Thursday. “There comes a time when the issues are so big, you want to be part of a team.”
Despite the change, Chafee told reporters that his beliefs and priorities remain the same and urged Rhode Islanders to look at his record as evidence.

Following the announcement, President Obama issued this statement welcoming Chafee to the Democratic Party:

“I’m delighted to hear that Governor Chafee is joining the Democratic Party. For nearly 30 years, Linc Chafee has served his beloved Rhode Island as an independent thinker and leader who’s unafraid to reach across party lines to get things done. I enjoyed working with Linc when he was a Republican in the United States Senate, and I look forward to continuing that collaboration on the issues that matter not just to the Democratic Party, but to every American. Creating good jobs that pay good wages.

I’m thrilled to welcome Linc to the party of Jefferson and Jackson, Roosevelt and Kennedy – and I look forward to working with him in the years ahead.”

Chafee went into politics as a Republican in 1985 as a delegate to the RI Constitutional Convention. Chafee was elected to the Warwick City Council in 1986, where he served until 1992 when he was elected mayor of Warwick.

In 2000, Chafee was elected to a six-year term in the U.S. Senate, a position he held until 2006 when Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse defeated him. After a brief political hiatus, Chafee won the governorship of Rhode Island in 2010 as an Independent candidate.

The incumbent Chafee will face a tough reelection bid in 2014 as he’s set to face off against potential candidates like Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and Treasurer Gina Raimondo in the Democratic Primary.

Senate passes Biodiesel Heating Oil Act of 2013

On Wednesday, the Senate passed legislation that looks to position Rhode Island as a leader in the emerging biofuels market. The bill, known as the Biodiesel Heating Oil Act of 2013, would require all No. 2 distillate heating oil sold in the state to contain a certain percentage of biobased materials.

“There are a lot of indirect positives that could come from this passing law,” said Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski, the bill’s sponsor. “Aside from jobs, which has been the Senate’s top priority, this will also bring us closer to better air quality, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and cost savings with the production of more efficient heating equipment. We also need to look at the big picture and stay in step with our nation’s desire to become less dependent upon foreign energy sources.”

Under the legislation, distillate heating oil sold in Rhode Island must contain 2 percent biobased products by July 2014, and 5 percent by July 2017. The bill also specifies that the governor has the power to temporarily suspend the requirements based on the availability of biobased product heating oil.

A companion bill sponsored by Rep. Arthur Handy is currently being considered in the House. 


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