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State Report: Fung’s Education Reform Plan + Big Grants for RI

Saturday, April 26, 2014


This week’s State Report centers on gubernatorial candidate Allan Fung’s educational reform plan, which the Cranston Mayor unveiled on Thursday. Additionally, we’ll also look at a pair of grant announcement, which look to boost Rhode Island’s agricultural and green energy sectors. We’ll also examine Sen. James Sheehan’s call to cut the state’s franchise tax and Rep. Stephen Casey’s push to save jobs in the Ocean State.

Fung unveils bold education plan

On Thursday, Republican gubernatorial candidate Allan Fung unveiled his education plan for Rhode Island, which included a pair of governance reform proposals. Firstly, the Cranston mayor would make the Commissioner of Education report to and be accountable to the Governor. Secondly, Fung’s plan featured a pitch to dissolve the state’s two-year-old Board of Education—reverting it back to a two-board education system.

Here is Fung’s proposal in its entirety, in the candidate’s words:

Commissioner of Education:

As I have stated in the past, upon my election as Governor, I will look at each department head individually before determining who would be asked to remain as part of the Fung administration. While I support much of the work performed by Commissioner Gist, I believe accountability is essential and it must start at the top.

Therefore, I propose to have the Commissioner of Education report to and be accountable to the Governor, who in turn will be accountable to the voters for the state
of education in Rhode Island. In Cranston, I have been a hands-on mayor, working closely with my department heads and as Governor, I will continue to work with those who have primary responsibility for implementing statewide policy decisions.

Board of Education:

I am also proposing to return to two education boards. One for primary and secondary education (grades K-12) and a second board for higher education. It is imperative that we return to two separate boards in order to get our education system back on track.

At the outset, it is necessary to recognize that K-12 and higher education require separate plans. Taking this one step further, the Commissioner and members of the two education boards would comprise an Education Cabinet, led by the Commissioner of Education. As Governor, I will work with the members of this Education Cabinet to achieve one strategic K-16 vision for our students, breaking down the silos in our education system through better collaboration and communication.

With two separate boards and the Commissioner of Education reporting directly to the Governor, there would be no need for an additional commissioner and therefore, I would defund the Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner. This would save the state $2 million dollars in the first year alone and funds already allocated would be repurposed to enhance STEM education in our State and to plan for an expansion to STREAM education, which I will discuss in details in the coming weeks.

University of Rhode Island:

URI is our flagship university and should be treated as such. I would like to grant to President Dooley authority to establish a body such as a Board of Trustees or Board of Regents. Working in conjunction with President Dooley, guidelines would be established by which the newly formed board would be permitted to build an endowment and move toward a degree of independent operations.

Doing so may eventually reduce the University’s reliance on state funding, thus saving the state millions of dollars and providing more consistency and predictability in the University’s fiscal resources. While URI would remain under the umbrella and oversight of the Commissioner and the Board of Higher Education, its independent board would be more able to hone in on the University’s mission and objectives.

Jobs and Education Cabinet:

Lastly, and most importantly, I propose to create a Jobs & Education Cabinet. For too long, Rhode Island has failed to acknowledge the need for a single strategic vision incorporating both education and our workforce.

My Jobs & Education Cabinet would bring together leaders in business, education, the public sector, and non-profit organizations, along with the Directors of the Department
of Labor and Training, CommerceRI, NetworkRI, and Business Regulation, and of course, the Commissioner of Education.

This cabinet would specifically discuss the necessary skillsets that our students will need to compete in the ever changing workplace. With the recommendations from varying sectors, I will ask the Commissioner of Education and our Boards of Education to implement into their respective policy initiatives programs to address these issues.

In closing, it is imperative to recognize that education and economic development must not be treated as separate discussions. Education equals jobs.

If we are serious about restoring our economy and putting our State back on track we must have a three part commitment: 1. Vision and Accountability that begin at the top. 2. A coordinated effort among educators, business leaders and government agencies to ensure that we pursue policies that are appropriate for the workforces of today and tomorrow. 3. Above all, an unending commitment to students first. 


For more legislative and political news from the past week, check out the slideshow below. 


Related Slideshow: RI State Report: More News of the Week - 4/26/14

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Franchise Tax

In an effort to attract new businesses to Rhode Island, Sen. James C. Sheehan released an op-ed this week urging lawmakers to pass legislation—which he introduced—to cut the state’s franchise tax.

"Under existing tax structure, all Rhode Island businesses face a minimum $500 per year business corporations (franchise) tax,” said Sheehan. “This year, I have introduced legislation that would suspend the imposition of the annual franchise tax of $500 for a period of three years from the date a business incorporates with the Secretary of State.”

“The legislation is intended to help small, start-up businesses in our state, the kind that we have been trying to attract through the various reforms and initiatives that have been enacted into law the past few years. If we are putting out the welcome mat to new companies, the last thing those firms need is to find a bill tucked under it, charging them $500 just so they can open their doors and stay open every year. That’s money a new company could better use to build their business,” added Sheehan. 

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Push to Protect Jobs 

With a United Healthcare proposal in front of the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH) that would cut 52 northern Rhode Island physicians and Landmark Medical Center from its provider network, Rep. Stephen M. Casey (D-Dist. 50, Woonsocket) voiced strong opposition to the plan last week and reached out to his colleagues in the General Assembly for support.

While negotiations are still ongoing between Prime Healthcare and United Healthcare insurance company for Medicaid and commercial contracts (a deal has already been reached with Prime in respect to the insurer’s Medicare program),  Casey said United is threatening to destroy years of hard work that would put the success of Prime’s newly-acquired Landmark Medical Center and the medical community in northern Rhode Island in serious jeopardy.

“Simply put, Landmark should be reimbursed on the same financial scale as other Rhode Islandhospitals,” Casey said. “If United Healthcare decides to drop it from its network, that will not only cause a severe rupture in access to medical treatment for northern Rhode Islanders, but it could also reverse years of hard work exuded by countless factions of people to get the hospital back on track after it fell into receivership. Landmark has not had an increase in payments from United since 2010, and of all the hospitals in the state, United pays Landmark the lowest amount. There is clearly a need here to pay the hospital enough to keep it profitable. This is not the old Landmark, and United needs to understand that.”

Casey has reached out to other state lawmakers and asked them to call, email and write to DOH Director Michael Fine last week on behalf of the hospital and affected physicians.

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Agricultural Grants

Earlier this week, Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) joined officials from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), the Rhode Island State Farm Service Agency (FSA), and Farm Fresh Rhode Island to celebrate Earth Day and announce new efforts to promote, research, and market Rhode Island agriculture. Reed announced a series of federal grants coming to Rhode Island to improve nutrition in schools and help increase demand and consumption of local, nutritious, and sustainable Rhode Island-grown food.

“There’s a lot people can do to protect the planet, like recycling and conserving energy.  And another smart way to help Rhode Island’s environment and the economy is to buy local and support your local farms and farmers markets. Because supporting sustainable agriculture here in Rhode Island also supports a healthy economy,” said Reed.  

This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is making a $255,000 Specialty Crop Block Grant available to DEM and to food and other specialty crop growers for a variety of projects.  Specialty crops make up the bulk of what we eat -- all of our fruits and vegetables -- as well as things like nursery crops.  Past recipients of these federal grants include: Farm Fresh Rhode Island; the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Rhode Island; Beanhouses Inc.; and the University of Rhode Island Cooperative Extension.

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Advocacy Group Critiques Pell

Rhode Island Taxpayers, an advocacy group that recently endorsed Ken Block for Governor, has questioned the seriousness of proposals put forth on Wednesday by Democratic Candidate Clay Pell. 

“Taxpayers and all voters need to be skeptical about a candidate claiming he is capable of bringing positive reforms to education when his campaign is being managed by the largest state teachers’ union,” said R.I. Taxpayers spokesperson Monique Chartier. “Innovation ideas for school districts and union management don’t normally go hand in hand.” Among the education related ideas put forth by Pell was the creation of a new state internship program at high schools, as well as a broad proposal to give more RI students exposure to careers in the defense industry.

The group is also skeptical about Pell’s proposal to direct more state taxpayer funds for start-up financing to new businesses when efforts such as business loan programs of the state Commerce Corporation, and the state’s Betaspring financing program for technology businesses already exist.

“Redundant proposals for more taxpayer financed business incentive programs for new businesses need to be viewed skeptically by taxpayers,” Chartier added. “A better business climate with an overall lower tax rate for existing businesses needs to occur before advocating for additional taxpayer funding for unproven new business enterprises.”

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Renewable Energy Grants

On Wednesday, Governor Lincoln Chafee announced The Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources (OER) has awarded $1.16 million in grants to support energy efficiency and renewable energy projects at local public and private schools throughout the state.

"By participating in regional initiatives such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, our state is able to benefit from projects that provide Rhode Island students with a 'living laboratory' to learn about clean energy and environmental protection," Chafee said.

East Greenwich, Chariho Regional, and Lincoln school districts were funded for energy efficiency investments totaling $538,000. These investments included energy-efficient lighting upgrades, replacement of boilers, and installation of controls for heating systems and fans. These projects will provide substantial energy reductions and cost savings for the schools. Chariho estimates that they will save approximately $14,000 annually and reduce their electricity use by 30 percent.

Rocky Hill School (East Greenwich), Community Preparatory School (Providence), Meeting Street School (Providence), and West Warwick High School were awarded a total of $622,250 in grants to install a total of 613 kW of solar capacity – solar photovoltaic systems ranging in size from 33 kW to 235 kW. West Warwick High School will use its grant to install systems on both its field house and ice rink – for a total annual energy bill savings of $31,000.

These awards were funded through Rhode Island's participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). RGGI is the nation's first market-based system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. RGGI puts a cap on greenhouse gas emissions from the electric power sector in participating states and sells tradable allowances at auction. Rhode Island uses our portion of the proceeds from the auctions to support energy efficiency measures and programs as well as projects focused on renewable energy, grid modernization, and innovation.


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