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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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