Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

When will Providence schools become accountable to Providence voters?

With increasing calls to end the state takeover of Providence public schools, the question has been raised: when will city voters elect their own school board?

Image from Infante-Green's Twitter feed

R.I. Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green, left, and Nick Hemond, chair of the Providence School Board, strike a thumbs-up pose for a post on Twitter in 2019 when the state takeover of the Providence public schools became official.

By Samuel Gifford Howard
Posted 5/31/21
Amid the renewed calls for the state to end its takeover of Providence public schools, the question is: When will the residents of Providence be able to elect their own school board?
Will public education become a commodity similar to the way that health care has become a commodity in the way that services are delivered? Who will follow the money trail of large corporations and foundations that have decided to underwrite education reform in the U.S.? Why has the teaching about slavery with the 1619 Project and “critical race theory” become such a point of political controversy? Does more attention need to be focused by the news media on Chiefs for Change, the group that both Infante-Green and Harrison Peters belong to? Should there be greater caution exercised when proponents of Infante-Green’s reform plans blame the COVID-19 pandemic for its difficulties in gaining traction?
As the world grapples with the threats of climate change and the ubiquitous surge in plastic pollution infecting in all parts of our lives, our oceans and our bodies, a new book, Pollution is Colonialism, by Max Liboiron, challenges the dominant research metrics, which Liboiron argues are premised on a colonial worldview and access to land.
Pollution, Liboiron argues, is not a “symptom” of capitalism but a violent re-enactment of colonial land relations that claim access to Indigenous land.
Her powerful work, similar to the writings of Rebecca Altman, whose forthcoming book on plastics explores the relationship between the chemistry of plastics and its promotion by industry, offers the kind of stories that are all too often left out of the conversation about who we are and what we do in our lives.
If I were still teaching journalism as an adjunct professor at URI, I would certainly include the recent story by Anand Pandian in Otherwise Magazine, who discovered a piece of plastic pollution from a Bayer aspirin box from the 1960s and followed the plastic fragment back to the factory in Germany where it was made. The story – and the prose – is haunting.
And, an excerpt from Mill Town by Kerri Arsenault, who tells her own intimate story about a factory town in Maine in which a paper manufacturer pollutes a river, a town, a community, and her own family.

Editor’s Note: The following story was written by Samuel Gifford Howard and originally appeared in the May 25 edition of “Rhode Island Liberator.”

In the piece, Howard creates a provocative conversation around the need for Providence public schools to be accountable to Providence, and Providence alone, as the original headline put it.

The questions raised by Howard explore an important political undercurrent to the crisis in confidence afflicting the current leadership team following the state takeover of Providence public schools: how and when can Providence regain control of its schools?

In republishing Howard’s essay, ConvergenceRI seeks to jumpstart a conversation that moves the needle beyond the “tastes great” and “less filling” arguments on public education in Rhode Island. Indeed, Howard challenges the opinions of both Boston Globe columnist Dan McGowan and Providence school board chair Nick Hemond, a good start to changing the dominant narrative.

In Part TWO, Howard answers questions in an interview with ConvergenceRI to provide context and nuance about the need to change the narrative around schools.

As a launch point for Howard’s story, let’s set the stage around the current turmoil:

• Providence Assistant Superintendent Olayinka Alege has been forced to resign after alleged inappropriate touching of a youth.

• Providence Superintendent Harrison Peters was then forced out – with a large severance payment – because Peters had hired Alege, despite having previously known about allegations of inappropriate touching of students in Florida.

• R.I. Commissioner of Education Angélica Infante-Green has found herself on the defensive, on the ropes, having claimed that she didn’t know about Alege’s past incidents of using “toe-popping” as a way to discipline students, despite it having been widely reported in the news media at the time Alege’s hiring was announced.

• Gov. Dan McKee has removed Infante-Green from the negotiating team with the Providence Teachers Union in talks over a new contract.

There was a revealing exchange last week between WPRI’s Steph Machado and R.I. Commissioner of Education, Angélica Infante-Green, about the perils of Twitter, a sure sign that the dominant narrative on education in Rhode Island, which had been controlled by Infante-Green, is now crumbling.

“It’s very hard when you are having a conversation that only half of it is being portrayed,” Infante-Green told Machado. “And on Twitter. Let’s not look at Twitter. If that’s where we are getting our news from, then, I worry about us [emphasis added].”

Part ONE

PROVIDENCE – Had it happened in isolation, I’d say Harrison Peters should’ve been able to survive the Alege scandal and continue his stewardship of Providence Public Schools.

His rationale, that he essentially believed in a person’s ability to redeem themselves, is one I’m sympathetic to. I’ve known people who have been convicted of heinous crimes who have spent their remaining lives dedicated to the betterment of society. I’ve also known people who actively harmed society and could have deaths laid at their feet, but will never spend a day in jail because they never broke a law.

But it didn’t happen in isolation [of course, nothing ever does]. By the time Alege’s alleged assaults were uncovered, Peters and the State’s takeover of Providence Public Schools had lost the unquestioning confidence of state and city politicians. Thus, the writing was on the wall when the Rhode Island Senate convened an oversight hearing into the scandal. And when Gov. McKee called the Education Commissioner before him, I think it was clear what would come next. Peters had lost any credibility he had possessed.

When Infante-Green and then Peters arrived in Providence, my first thought was: “We’ll still be here long after they’re gone.”

So it’s gone with the string of reform-minded education leaders that have managed Providence Schools since I was a kid. One comes in, causes a ton of consternation, generates praise from pro-reform quarters, ends the programs of their predecessor, then inevitably leaves in a few years with little progress to show and everyone agreeing that Providence schools are still doing quite poorly.

Don’t blame it on COVID
I can understand the argument advanced by The Boston Globe’s Dan McGowan that the takeover and “turnaround” has been derailed by the COVID pandemic and we should give it the chance to bear fruit despite this latest failure. On the other hand, I’ve heard that song sung for over two and a half decades.

It strikes me that Providence Public Schools are accountable to no one. The current mayoral-appointed school board plus council oversight is frankly a way to diffuse responsibility so that no one can carry the blame. The School Board can blame the Council, the Council can blame the Mayor, and the Mayor can blame the School Board.

The addition of the State adds yet another layer of unaccountability. Evidence of this is that Commissioner Infante-Green called for Peters’ resignation seemingly after receiving orders or approval to do so from the Governor. This was all too typical opaque decision-making: we don’t know what the Governor said to the Commissioner; we only know that prior to meeting with him she had not called for Peters’ resignation and following the meeting she had.

Let me pause here and say I do not envy anyone who takes on education policy. It strikes me that it may be 12 years before any intervention starts demonstrating success, and even then it may take a lifetime. For executives term-limited to eight years who are insulated from control over the schools, why invest serious political capital in something which voters won’t be able to reward you for? Better to focus on how quickly roads are repaired or shoveled.

I also think it’s a field that is inherently one that invites conflict. Everyone in this system works from the best of intentions towards a common goal: providing children the best education attainable. Yet everyone thinks they are the only one right and that all the other players have ulterior motives. It doesn’t help that everyone has failed at one point or another.

Solving all the problems
Into this contentious system, we then ask education policy to overcome all the societal failures we have made. There is no other service the state provides that is tasked with ending poverty, undoing racism and segregation, providing a steady stream of productive workers and innovative scholars, creating an engaged and healthy citizenry [and soldiery], and generating the leaders of the future; all while constantly being tested and reengineered.

Somehow, polling reveals that there are many people who are somewhat happy with their schools, at least according to the crosstabs of the ALG Research poll conducted for Stop the Wait RI in March; charter schools, regular public schools, and teachers’ unions are broadly popular across the state.

Restricted just to Providence, while residents rate the city’s school system as a whole negative and all agree it needs to change, residents of color [defined by ALG as “African-American or Black,” “Hispanic or Latino,” “Asian American,” and “Other”) narrowly gave their neighborhood school positive ratings, with some even venturing that it was “excellent.”

In an illustration of how segregated this school system is, no white residents said their neighborhood school was excellent, and nearly as many volunteered that they didn’t know as offered as a positive assessment [“don’t know” was not an option on the survey, and 30 percent of white Providence residents offered it anyway].

So while majorities want reform, it’s clear that many in the community see value in what already exists. Those who [literally or figuratively] suggest a whole-scale teardown and rebuilding of Providence’s schools would throw out a lot that many people who experience it find is working well. The question is how to build on what is already good.

This is lost in the current conversation. The leaders of the takeover have often struck me as too imperious, too dismissive of input from Providence groups who have been here for long before they arrived and will be here long after they are gone. This is why I think the takeover will inevitably fail. Where they might’ve found natural allies and then people who would continue the work they begin, instead I think they will go the way of the Diana Lams and the Donnie Evanses of my past: half-forgotten memories and cautionary tales.

An elected school board
I think there is no other option left for Providence but an elected school board. I am tired of the interlocutors who have no sense of this city, who care little for our people and our children [much less our future], who have already determined the solution before they have examined the problem. It is long past time that Providence schools are accountable to the only people who matter: the people of Providence.

I don’t find McGowan’s protestation that the City Council’s failed oversight is evidence that an elected school board would similarly fail very convincing. The Council has other matters to worry about, and the schools are intentionally insulated from them. Give us a body directly elected by the voters of the city with a sole mandate to run the schools, and who can be held accountable for success or failure. Let the Mayor and Council determine its budget, but otherwise leave them out of it.

Similarly, I don’t find current school board president Nick Hemond’s argument that an elected school board would inject too much politics into the schools very convincing. My entire life, Providence Public Schools have been full of politics; the schools were, in fact, how I was introduced to politics. What they lack, and what Hemond’s seemingly off-hand proposal for the continuation of the appointed board model [now with appointees from the State] would worsen, is any sort of mandate from the people they ostensibly represent.

Solving conflict
At its core, politics is about solving conflict. There is conflict over Providence public schools. Give us a forum to have those conflicts, to address the disagreements we have. Give us, the residents of Providence, a space to seek compromise over what our schools should be. Let us select the leaders who will determine the future of our city’s schools. Us, and us alone.

There are those who say that because of the amount of state aid distributed to Providence, it is a concern of the entire state, and thus Providence does not have the leeway of self-determination in the matter of education. I reject this rationale. I do not argue that the aid distributed to Cranston or Woonsocket or Barrington or North Providence or Burrillville gives my representatives the right to intervene in those communities. The U.S. Constitution makes cities and towns political creations of the states, but this cannot be treated as true in Rhode Island, where the political entity of Providence predates the political entity of Rhode Island and united with it to make this state. We have as much [if not more] right to be undisturbed in our politics as any other municipality in this state. If the State finds this untenable, let them end the charade then and do away with municipalities entirely.

Right now, the conversation around Providence public schools happens with everyone but the parents and students of Providence having a place to say anything about it. This is upside down. The only people talking about Providence schools should be the parents and students of Providence, with everyone else’s input limited to advisory roles. My view is very simple: hand control of our schools over to the people with the greatest stake in their future.

If you’re worried about East Siders and/or those who send their kids to private school having too much power in an elected school board, the solutions are simple: use a ward system or elect people using single-transferrable vote so that no one can rely on just one part of the city to win all the seats. We could also get creative and mandate that to be eligible to run school board members must either have a child in Providence public schools, be a recent graduate of Providence public schools, or else be an educator within the school system and a resident of the city.

“This is turnaround, and everybody’s not made for turnaround,” Peters was quoted by WPRI as saying after he fired two principals engaged in a previous turnaround effort. He continued: “So you may want to think again if this work is for you.”

Peters’ exit gives us a moment to think again about what we should want from our schools. The politicians who unquestioningly offered up our schools into the State’s hands hoping someone else would take care of the problem seem to be thinking again. Maybe it’s time to admit that hoping someone else will fix the schools is going to fail us once again. Give Providence the agency over our schools that we deserve.

Sam Howard is the principal author of The Liberator, a blog about politics and culture, with a heavy focus on Rhode Island.


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