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Donna Perry: The Butke Candidacy is About More than Education Reform

Thursday, July 12, 2012


It has not taken long for the forces that oppose innovations to our state’s school system to come out swinging against a very visible figure from the ranks of education reform that has launched a campaign for the state Legislature. It’s not that it should come as a surprise that top NEARI leadership is busy blogging and negative messaging against the candidacy of Maryellen Butke for State Senate, District 3 in the race to fill the open seat created by the retirement of Senator Rhoda Perry on Providence’s East Side.

But the hint of confusion from opposing forces about how best to attack a self-proclaimed progressive Democrat who also happens to be a passionate school reformer will be interesting to watch. (A note of disclosure: This election year, rather than extend endorsements of candidates for the state Legislature, RISC will be unveiling an Issues Platform which will be built around positions that best represent the interests of state and local community taxpayers. This column is not meant to represent an endorsement of the candidate, but is an analysis of what her candidacy means for the wider education reform debate.)

Butke has been, until this week, the Executive Director of RI-CAN (RI Campaign for Achievement Now) an advocacy organization for school reform that’s part of a growing national network. Unlike the unions, school reform entities can’t rely on mandatory dues collection from people’s paychecks to bankroll operations, and so donations from the private sector (union rhetoric translation: “evil corporations”) make up the core funding source of many school reform organizations. I state this because the private funding side of the education reform movement has become as much of a flashpoint in the charter school debates as the wider arguments over teacher performance, curriculums and all the rest.

The point that the taxpayer— whether individual or corporate—as the entity which subsidizes the public education system, should be entitled to bringa new voice, and yes, new vision to the operations of schools, seems lost on some in union leadership. But could it be that the true motivation for the swift criticisms of the candidate and worn out cheap shots against her organization lie more with a deeper fear of what her individual candidacy represents—and the brand it could unleash in campaign cycles to come?Education reformers represent more than just advocacy for changes in the classroom. There is an undeniable link between public school system performance benchmarks and the general success of the surrounding economy.

Our neighbor to the north, with the best ranked public school system in the U.S., also happens to shoulder a far lower unemployment rate, and in more recent years has posted job growth quarters while RI continues to lose jobs with a painfully persistent unemployment rate that hovers around 11%. Yet there are growing indicators from the pockets of economic development successes in the state (including Quonset Point, some corners of the KnowledgeDistrict business sector, and others) that Rhode Island’s deeper problem is the inability to produce the properly skilled workforce to match the jobs that are emerging.

If RI is going to catch up with neighbors like Massachusetts in both the classroom and job market performance areas, public school union leadership must recognize school reforms and innovations are needed to reverse the kind of data that shows 43% of RI’s high school juniors are scoring substantially below proficient on key math tests, for example. RI-CAN has often cited the significant role that quality teacher assignment plays in overall student achievement and also has advocated for stronger independence for principals in running their own schools and a slate of policies that support merit—and not seniority—for teacher assignment and advancement.

This past session, RI-CAN was the lead advocate promoting legislation that would have moved the teacher lay-off notification date from the current March 1st to June 1st to better align such lay-off notices with most city and town budgeting schedules. A sensible reform yet it could not be moved out of the education committees because it apparently lacked the union’s blessing.Last year, RICAN played a pivotal role in the battle to site the Achievement First Mayoral Academy in Providence, which was ultimately successful, but only after a ferocious misinformation campaign was waged against the Achievement First operators. The Mayoral Academy won out and so did the argument often espoused by reformers like Ms. Butke that the quality of a child’s public school should not have to depend on the zip code their parents and family are able to afford.

It’s an uncomfortable truth that many public school teachers privately dislike the confines of the union constructed inflexible system in which they serve. Most teachers will tell you they became a teacher to be an educator of children, period, and don’t relate to, and frankly resent the militant partisan rhetoric espoused by those who supposedly have their best interests at heart.Ms. Butkehas expressed many times that her convictions and passion to achieve meaningful reforms in local public education are not just grounded in her professional background as an educator, but are rooted first and foremost in her primary role as a parent.

What all this adds up to is that a candidate with an education reform focus is also a candidate with a job development/economic growth platform. As this state continues to post one meager economic activity season after the next, it would seem to be a candidacy that is precisely on message.

Donna Perry is Executive Director of RISC, RI Statewide Coalition - http://www.statewidecoalition.com


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LOL, "Yet there are growing indicators from the pockets of economic development successes in the state that Rhode Islands deeper problem is the inability to produce the properly skilled workforce to match the jobs that are emerging" WOW, great talking point Donna, but didn't Curt "the Schill" Schilling use that one about 6-8 months ago? Haha what a joke you are.

Comment #1 by tom brady on 2012 07 12

Donna, Donna, Donna. Let's take the finger test. Please point to ONE educational reform that your friend has accomplished. Go ahead, take your time. From where I'm sitting other than come out and say she is for or against something Ms.Butke has done nothing. Sideline reforms love to sit and pass judgment, but where the metal hits the meat she, and so many other educational reformers lack the common sense, practical experience, and training to offer anything other than....her opinion. So please, don't hoist her onto your shoulders and claim she is the great savior of education...cause she is not.

Comment #2 by Joseph Fazio on 2012 07 12

Hi Donna. You wrote, "It’s not that it should come as a surprise that top NEARI leadership is busy blogging and negative messaging against the candidacy of Maryellen Butke."

I've seen a couple different blog postings on Ms. Butke's candidacy, and have written a couple online comments myself. I believe I saw Pat Crowley (of the NEA) write one comment on one online article, but none of the other things I've seen have been written by people associated with NEA, let alone "top NEARI leadership." Maybe there are some articles out there I missed, but I doubt that cause usually I follow these things.

So unless all those people have been hiding from me that they are top NEARI leadership, that was an untrue statement. I think what you were trying to do with this false statement is link opposition to Butke as inherently from the union, instead of from a broad base of folks, some of whom are very involved in education, some of whom are, like you, less involved, and many of whom make up the bedrock of the East Side progressive community (like, for example, Senator Perry herself).

One last comment, cause I just can't resist. You mentioned RI-CAN's funding sources, setting up the straw man argument that getting funding from the private sector, particularly corporations, is okay. Duh, of course it is. What I and others have criticized is the particular corporations. For example, Wal-Mart--a company with some of the worst environmental, labor, and corruption practices that currently exist--is well know to have the most explicitly right-wing foundation in the world, with a clear focus on advancing conservative causes. Again, that's fine if they agree with your organization's goals and you want to accept their money, but you can't do so and claim that you're progressive, in the same way I can't get money from Right to Life Inc. and claim I'm pro-choice.

Comment #3 by Aaron Regunberg on 2012 07 12

With all these attacks on this article and on Butke from obvious union supporters it's clear that this woman needs to get elected.

Unions have killed this state and are now munching on it's bones. So anyone they are against sane people must support.

Comment #4 by Jeffrey deckman on 2012 07 12

Butke talks about teachers but she doesn't address their parents. Why do some parents, particularly in Providence and Central Falls allow their children to be absent 40-60 days per year? Why do these parents fail to show up THREE TIMES for scheduled parent/teacher conferences? Why doesn't she decry the practice of some Hispanics to take an extra month off from school after Christmas to visit "their country"? What does she have to say about a senior in Central Falls graduating students with up to 115 days absent?...http://www.foxprovidence.com/dpps/living_green/target-12-central-falls-grads-absent-for-90-days_4206269....she says NOTHING...I will do everything in my power to see that she is not elected. BTW I expect an answer Ms. Perry or Ms. Butke.

Comment #5 by Ed Jucation on 2012 07 12

Ed, in my experience nearly all parents want to and try to engage in their children's education, but many face really significant obstacles (for example, if I work two jobs and my boss has threatened to fire folks who take time off, I don't know how I'm going to make time to get to know my kid's school). I think what we need is an education system that does more to engage parents (as well, of course, as students and teachers). And I think that Ms. Butke's policies do the opposite of that.

Comment #6 by Aaron Regunberg on 2012 07 12

Nice article Donna. One interesting point of information that no one has mentioned is that Massachusetts Governor Patrick signed into law that all teachers will be reviewed on job performance - merit review, and that all seniority and tenure has been waived off. This will enable administrators to weed out the under performers to the benefit of the students. RI has a long, long way to go raise the bar on education excellence. Simply throwing money at it didn’t work. The public unions must recognize education reforms if our students are to ever compete. We are graduating students with substandard Math and Reading skills. Unacceptable! Candidates like Butke, who advocate for reforms must be elected. We have a tired legislature with worn out ideas. If the unions are not willing to accept these reforms, they may find themselves on the outside looking in. Remember what happened in Wisconsin!

Comment #7 by Lance Chappell on 2012 07 12

This shows how shallow Donna's thinking is. Butke is a self proclaimed "progressive" that just happens to see the light on some education reform. I thought the shoreline group was conservative - i guess this shows the depth of their candidate vetting. What a joke

Comment #8 by Bill Flemming on 2012 07 12

oh wait - now it makes sense. The RI shoreline group is the same group that endorses Caprio and slammed Robitaille just a day after it was announced he had risen to #2 in the polls. It has nothing to do with conservatism with that group - it is all about who the big money in Watch Hill wants them to promote. RISC is just a puppet. We should call them the RI NIMBY group.

Comment #9 by Bill Flemming on 2012 07 12

"This column is not meant to represent an endorsement of the candidate, but is an analysis of what her candidacy means for the wider education reform debate" Let's be intellectually honest...if it walks like an endorsement and quacks like and endorsement-It's an Endorsement!

Comment #10 by Pro DemocracyII on 2012 07 12

Aaron I hear you but you have to agree that when a teacher sends out 49 notices to parents REQUESTING A CONFERENCE, giving them my home phone number AND my e-mail address and only receives 3 responses then something is definitely wrong. Call me...anytime...Saturday, Sunday. Send me an e-mail..takes 1 min. To simply blow off a teacher who is going above and beyond what is required to help your child is basically rude and disrespectful. And then we have people like Gist focusing on US when the real problem is poverty, language barriers and cultures that do not value education as much as my culture does.

Comment #11 by Ed Jucation on 2012 07 13

@Lance: It will also allow administrators to weed out people they simply don't like, might be the wrong sex, maybe a little too old, those teachers whose philosophical beliefs differ from theirs, etc. I don't like the union at all...they have never done anything for me but take my money. However, if my job is on the line for one of the above cited reasons, I'm glad to have the union at my disposal.

Comment #12 by Ed Jucation on 2012 07 13

An education reform candidate is not only welcome but obviously badly needed as, for decades, up until the most recent results, K-12 achievement in RI was in the bottom 20% nationally.

And the moderate progress in achievement that was made just recently was brought about because of the collaborative efforts at education reform of the state's education commissioner and teachers around the state.

Indeed, bring on the education reform candidates.

Comment #13 by Monique Chartier on 2012 07 14

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