Category Archives: School Choice

Just in (no surprise): voters want more choice and accountability in education

There was a time, many moons ago, when people had confidence in public education to provide the best for their kids – but high cost and low performance has a way of changing things as exhibited by a recent survey from our friends at RI-CAN:

  • Super Leaders. Over 75 percent of voters think the leaders of Rhode Island’s public schools should keep the momentum of education reform by implementing the state’s Race to the Top plan.
  • Super Schoolhouses. 60 percent of voters think public charter schools should be reimbursed for their school building costs at an equal rate to traditional public schools.
  • Super Readers. 93 percent of voters support requiring Rhode Island teachers to pass a reading proficiency test before they can teach elementary school students.

No more nepotism

A North Providence school committee member has proposed that fellow committee members can’t vote to employ family members.

“Specifically, no School Committee member shall vote to employ any potential applicant to school department employment that is a family member or party of any School Committee member or elected town official as defined (in state law).”

East Providence (the out-going committee) has even suggested that no family members be hired at all, regardless of who votes for it. But it’s never that easy.

“The ACLU would be all over it,” Cataldi said at the time. “We can’t discriminate if an applicant is qualified.

Having first hand experience on the Chariho School Committee – a committee of 11 members, 6 of which had family employed at the school – I can tell you this is a very real problem.  However, I would not suggest rules eliminating family members. I would advocate for contract negotiations being done in public. Wouldn’t that go farther to ensure that  we don’t give away the farm?

Sorry Victor – our mind is right,,, and correct

In the GOP gubernatorial debate last night, Victor Moffit attacked John Robitaille for being opposed to regionalized school districts.

Robitaille said there has been “no documentation that says it will save us any money,” and evidence that the “cost of administration per student” in the merged Chariho Regional School District is higher than it is in Westerly. Beyond that, “I believe that control of the schools should be at the local level.”

But Moffitt said “anyone in their right mind” would recognize that by whittling 36 school districts down to 4, “we are going to save money … and have less bureaucracy. Even John should understand there will be less bureaucracy.”

While we at OSPRI try to stay out of political campaigns, it is likely that the data mentioned in the debate came from our research so we are compelled to speak up.  From our January 2009 report, “Regionalization, be careful what you wish for

“It’s a very easy pitch to say 36 school districts with 36 superintendents are more expensive than five regionalized districts with five superintendents. Unfortunately, it’s not true,” said OSPRI President William Felkner. “I bought it too, until I saw the data.”

When comparing fully regionalized districts to similar size town districts we find that regionalized districts have the highest per pupil costs. One example is the Chariho Regional School District which was put together from three towns to make a school district whose student body is the same size as neighboring Westerly. But, the supposed economies of scale are nowhere on display in Chariho where administration costs per pupil are $825, forty percent more than the $589 spent in Westerly.

Indeed, when it comes to administration costs, the supposed venue for obvious savings, they are well above the median in ALL the regionalized districts.

Finding a light at the end of the tunnel, Felkner said, “If every taxpayer knew that the average raise for teachers in their first 10 years of service is 10.5%, I seriously doubt that those double digit raises would continue for very long.”

While education salaries are growing, it could be worse.

Presumably, teachers and their union representatives are well aware of the fact that state government FTE costs went up 35% from 2000-2006 inclusive, while teacher salaries in RI only increased 16.6%. The notion that Rhode Island’s individual districts would see costs savings from sophisticated statewide or regional negotiations is certainly drawn into question by these figures. This doesn’t mean that there is not more work to do on salaries, staffing levels, and results in RI, it simply suggests that regionalization in education is no panacea and likely would lead to higher costs and less taxpayer accountability.

“It is likely that when regionalization occurs, the taxpayers become disconnected from the management of their schools and costs spiral out of control due to a lack of accountability,” said Felkner. “Only when armed with information and access will taxpayers be able to regain control. While we may not always win when negotiating on the municipal level, we NEVER win on the state level.

As a side note, the 10.5% average total raise for teachers in their first 10 years of employment (the “steps”)  was from contacts obtained in 2008.  We have been reviewing the new contracts and it appears the recession is having an impact. The latest average total raise for those same employees for the contracts we have received is now at 8.5%.

Is an 8.5% raise the kind of sacrifice you expected?

Florida Forges Ahead with School Choice, Merit Pay

Here is an update on the education reform effort in Florida from the Heartland Institute:

Florida’s low-income and minority students won a victory Thursday, April 9, when the state House of Representatives voted to expand the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, also known as Step Up for Students. The program currently provides more than 25,000 low-income students with up to $3,950 per year to attend a school of their choice. SB 2126 passed 95-23, with solid bipartisan support.

More contentious was a landmark bill that would establish merit pay for teachers in the Sunshine State. The House passed SB 6 at 2:26 a.m. Friday, after nine hours of debate and with 11 Republicans joining a unanimous bloc of Democrats in opposition. Gov. Charlie Crist (R) initially had expressed support for SB 6 and had touted merit pay when he ran for governor in 2006. But Crist, who is running for U.S. Senate this year, began to waver Thursday and may veto the bill.

Click here to read more from the Heartland Institute.

Felkner: School Decisions Should Be Up to Parents

OSPRI President Bill Felkner had an op-ed published in The Providence Journal Sunday. He makes an important point about the school crisis in Central Falls: while the actions of the education commissioner and the superintendent—in standing up to a teacher union that refused to do extra work to help failing students—are laudable, ultimately, true school reform will not happen until decisions are placed in the hands of parents. Here are the highlights from the article:

Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist has done a commendable job of pushing Rhode Island toward a more responsible system. Last year, she ended employee “bumping” — letting teachers with seniority “bump” less senior teachers out of their classrooms and take their jobs. The brilliance of the commissioner’s move is that if or when the Central Falls teachers are terminated they won’t then be able to bump their way back into a school near you.

The commissioner’s reforms, along with the success of the mayoral-academy idea advocated by Cumberland Mayor Daniel McKee, suggest that a critical mass of parents is unhappy with Rhode Island’s education system. However, these are still just the first steps toward true reform.

Gist is wresting power from the unions and implementing reforms through the state Department of Education, such as the no-bumping rule. In Cumberland, meanwhile, McKee is taking power away from the school committee and enhancing the role of the mayor.

In both instances, the intent is laudable, but what happens if an anti-reform mayor is elected in Cumberland, or a new commissioner takes office at the state level, one less inclined to do battle with the unions?

Either way, control is just being shifted from one governmental entity to another — from the school committees to the mayor, or from public teacher unions to the education commissioner and the superintendents.

Ultimately, the balance of power must be shifted from government to the parents. This is the free-market approach to education reform: Instead of changes being centrally dictated by a mayor, superintendent or education commissioner, they are driven by the cumulative choices of individual parents. This ensures that purchasing power is in the hands of those with the most vested interest.

How Regionalization Could Hurt School Choice

There is a lot of talk about regionalization in Rhode Island. Some taxpayer advocates think it will save money by reducing the number of superintendents and administrative staff. However, we think it’s important to draw a distinction between regionalization and consolidation: the former creates a new governmental bureaucracy that is unaccountable to voters, while the latter saves money by consolidating services without infringing upon local control. The perils of regionalization are well illustrated in Vermont. The president of the Ethan Allen Institute, the Vermont counterpart to OSPRI, recently testified before the state Senate about how regionalization could affect school choice. Below are some highlights:

Why are we reorganizing into a small number of districts? The Commissioner’s Transformation Policy Commission, which strongly recommends this, does not claim that it will save any money. It will make life simpler for superintendents – that’s a plus (for them).

It will supposedly result in greater learning opportunities for pupils within the regional districts. (This was the argument of Commissioner Scribner’s 1970 Vermont Design for Education, which failed.) Pupils could enjoy public school choice within the regional districts. The teachers union has no problem with this since all public schools are staffed by dues paying union members.

But what about pupils in the 90 tuition towns where pupils have for 140 years had genuine choice of public and approved independent schools? …

The most likely effect of regionalizing districts will be to terminate parental choice for thousands of pupils who benefit from it.

The Commissioner says that parental choice for the four independent academies would continue to be allowed (within their four regions only) – but not the other approved non-religious independent schools. Indeed, he is clearly uncomfortable with the smaller independent schools and wants them to achieve (costly) NEASC accreditation before they can accept tuition pupils.

Click here to read the full version. Also, it looks like Maine has dealt with the same issue. Click here to read more about that.

Central Falls Firings Should Only Be First Step

From the OSPRI Weekly Update:

Education Commissioner Deborah Gist has done a wonderful job pushing Rhode Island towards a more responsible system. You may recall she eliminated employee bumping last year. This is the practice of teachers with seniority being allowed to ‘bump’ a less senior teacher out of her classroom and take her job. The brilliance of this move is that when/if the Central Falls teachers are terminated they won’t then be able to bump their way back into a school near you.

The commissioner’s reforms, upon the backdrop of Mayor McKee and the success of Mayoral Academies, are all evidence that a critical mass of parents are unhappy with Rhode Island’s education system and action is being taken. However, these are still just nibbles along the edges.

Gist is taking power away from unions and implementing control through the state, such as the no-bumping change. McKee is taking power away from school committees by providing a public school option run through the mayor’s office. We like the intent, but what happens if Gist and/or McKee is replaced by Mussolini-lite? Aren’t we just trading masters?

Lost in this discussion is liberty. Individual liberty with which comes personal responsibility. Purchasing power should be in the hands of those with the most vested interest – the parent. The solution to education reform lies in shifting control not from one government entity to another, but from government to the individual (or parent in this case).

Watching La Razza and Progresso Latino on the front lines in the battle for last year’s Mayoral Academies and the lifting of the moratorium on charter schools, dispels the myth that school choice will cause inner-city children, particularly those with uninvolved parents, to suffer in an education system where the government doesn’t look out for them.

We don’t have grocery store committees that dictate where we shop, what we buy, and how much we pay for our groceries, why do we allow the government to dictate to us where we send out children to school and how much we will pay? Schools can remain “public” and still operate in a competitive free-market environment – they just chose not to. And since they have historically had the power around here, they haven’t had to.

But now that we have a new sheriff in town, maybe that will change. I wonder if Commissioner Gist’s next move will be to propose a funding formula that follows the child … to any school.