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Small State's Big Challenges
Rhode Island's educational system grapples with transition from manufacturing economy

By Jon Marcus
Providence, Rhode Island

Drive through Rhode Island-it doesn't take long-and you'll pass mile after mile of huge mill buildings, their red-brick walls punctuated by rows of empty windows under cold, dead smokestacks. These are the vestiges of the manufacturing era. Some have been converted into offices or loft apartments or warehouses. Many are abandoned.

There are few places in America where the shift from manufacturing to the information economy is as evident as in these 1,000 square miles. And there are even fewer places where the success of that economy is so clearly intertwined with public education at all levels.

"The word microcosm is probably the best description," said Robert Weygand, a former lieutenant governor and congressman who now is vice president for administration at the University of Rhode Island. "The problems of education in general in the United States are probably best exemplified by the problems that exist in Rhode Island."

The list is familiar: Over-reliance on property taxes. Large numbers of non-native-English-speaking, immigrant students. Low state financial support and high tuition for public higher education. Strong teacher unions resistant to reforms. Partisan bickering. The huge burden on local districts of providing pensions and healthcare for retired teachers. Fiercely defended local control of schools.

The challenges of American education are writ large in this tiny state. And so are some of its promises.

 
Mary Sylvia Harrison is president of the Rhode Island Children's Crusade, which offers college scholarships to low-income students with good school records.
(Photo by M.J. Maloney, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Governor Don Carcieri, a onetime high school math teacher married to a former junior high school science teacher, is a rare proponent among Republican governors of increased investment in education. Carcieri has called for raising the long-declining annual state allocation for Rhode Island's public university, public college and community college (it is now $182 million, or $160.59 per capita, making Rhode Island a dismal 42nd in the nation in state support for higher education) and doubling need-based student aid, using $20 million in proceeds from newly legalized video lottery terminals.

Carcieri has proposed a system of science fellows—master teachers who would serve as models of good classroom instruction. He supports charter schools, especially in urban areas, and he has pushed a unified statewide curriculum and merit pay for teachers. He appointed state education, business and labor officials to a new PK-16 Council to help high school graduates succeed in college—and made himself the chairman.

Carcieri has also formed a Science and Technology Advisory Council co-chaired by the vice president for research at Brown University and the head of URI's College of Environmental and Life Sciences, and ordered it to come up with recommendations for strengthening the state's science and technology sector.

You can't build a prosperous state without good schools, Carcieri said in his state-of-the-state address last year. And here, too, is where Rhode Island serves as a laboratory-quality example of how education is connected to the broader economy.

 
Don Carcieri, Rhode Island's Republican governor and a onetime high school math teacher, has pushed for education reforms since taking office in 2003.
(Photo by M.J. Maloney, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Manufacturing has fallen from 20 percent of the gross state product in 1990 to 12 percent today, while finance, insurance and real estate have increased from 21 percent to 30 percent. The number of biopharmaceutical jobs alone will triple in Rhode Island in the next ten years, the Milken Institute predicts, and the state will need educated workers to fill them. Yet, as a percentage of the total population, Rhode Island's workforce is declining, not expanding. "That by itself raises the question of whether Rhode Island will be able to field a highly skilled workforce going forward," said Gary Sasse, director of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council. "When you look at what growth there is, most of the kids are coming from urban schools, and these are very troubled schools." They are the same schools that feed the public campuses.

For instance, consider the school system in Providence, the state's biggest. The number of children in that city swelled from less than 38,000 to more than 45,000 between 1990 and 2000, largely because of an influx of Hispanics.

Statewide, the Hispanic population in Rhode Island grew by more than 45,000 between 1990 and 2000, while other groups declined. Hispanics now account for 44 percent of all Providence residents under 18. Forty percent of these children live in poverty, up from 35 percent in 1990. One in five needs help learning English. Fewer than half of all adults in the city's three poorest neighborhoods have completed high school. The dropout rate is 35 percent, double the state average. And money is so short that Providence last year threatened to cut 14 days from the school year, lay off 20 guidance counselors, and eliminate sports.

And it's not just Providence. There are 36 separate school districts in Rhode Island, from affluent to impoverished. Their students' average combined SAT score in 2004 was 1005, below the national average of 1026 and the lowest of all the New England states.

Rhode Island also has New England's lowest high school graduation rate. On state assessment tests last year, a third of fourth graders fell below state standards in English, and half in math. Nearly half of eighth graders cannot read or write effectively. A report on student performance found that high schools did not appear to prepare many graduates for college. More than 40 percent of the students who graduated from Rhode Island high schools in 2002 and enrolled at the Community College of Rhode Island failed the college's reading test and needed remedial classes. Nearly half failed the writing test, and more than half flunked the math test.

Governor Carcieri himself drew blank stares when, while visiting an eighth grade social studies class in East Providence, he saw a trapezoid on the blackboard and asked the students if they knew what it was; the teacher finally filled the silence by admitting that they hadn't gotten that far. "Too many of our high school graduates cannot read a book, write an essay, or calculate a math problem," the governor said.

Turning out graduates prepared to work at high-tech firms "is a major issue for the governor, and he's putting it front and center," said Katherine O'Dea, executive director of the Tech Collective, an industry coalition. "The business community already recognizes the challenge. And the challenge is going to become a crisis if we don't start addressing it now." Paul Harrington, a Northeastern University economist who studies Rhode Island, agrees: "The long-term health of the economy is going to be based on the ability to supply large quantities of qualified labor," he said. "That's the economy that will win."

So Rhode Island has changed its century-old high school graduation requirements to include, beginning in 2008, senior projects and portfolios—a short story, for example, or a report about a science experiment, or a collection of the student's artwork. Many elementary schools are focusing on reading. Some high schools have been divided into smaller components in which each student is known by at least one adult. And state officials are working on a common curriculum to be implemented next fall.

Several other steps have also been taken to improve the state's educational system. An organization called the Rhode Island Children's Crusade is enrolling low-income students, beginning in the third grade, who pledge to stay in school and work hard in exchange for scholarships to college. The Rhode Island Student Loan Authority and College Planning Center of Rhode Island is offering a free SAT prep course; students who participated in the pilot program saw their average SAT scores improve by an average of 90 points.

More than half of Rhode Island schools have moved into the high-performing category under the federal No Child Left Behind Law; 166 were classified as "high fliers," up from 89 the year before. (Another 84 continued to be considered as in need of improvement.)

 
"The problems of education in general in the United States are probably best exemplified by the problems that exist in Rhode Island," says Robert Weygand, a University of Rhode Island vice president.
(Photo by M.J. Maloney, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
While Rhode Island's small size seems to make it an ideal state to try out reforms, it's a surprisingly tough place to put them into practice. "We move at a very, very slow pace," said Mary Sylvia Harrison, president of the Children's Crusade. Added the Tech Collective's O'Dea: "In California, if something is going on in San Francisco and you're in Sacramento, you don't even hear about it. But we're so close and tied in together, you can't not know what's going on from one community to the next. And when everybody has their little piece of something, they don't want to give it up."

For example, Carcieri wants to eliminate a moratorium now in place that limits the number of charter schools to two per district, but the General Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, won't do it until the governor does something about the way traditional public schools are financed. Teacher unions are against his merit-pay idea, saying merit is too hard to measure; if rewards are linked to test scores, they say, teachers in richer, more stable districts will have a better shot than those in inner-city schools.

The Education Partnership, a business coalition, is on the governor's side on this issue, recommending that the state assume control from local school districts over negotiating teacher contracts. The coalition also wants a four-tier pay scale for teachers: master, pre-master, basic, and below basic. Teachers who get two negative evaluations in one year could be fired immediately, and seniority protections would be weakened in favor of performance standards.

Meanwhile, as in other states, the cost of retired teacher benefits is sapping school budgets. This year, the state and local districts will pour $128.5 million into the teachers' pension fund, $51 million more than last year. The small town of Tiverton alone saw a 39.4 percent increase in its contribution to the state retirement system for teachers. Carcieri has proposed lowering these costs by imposing a minimum retirement age of 65 for teachers who have worked at least ten years, or 60 for those who have worked at least 30 years; pensions would drop from 80 percent of a teacher's three-year salary average after 35 years to 75 percent after 38 years. Now state workers and teachers can retire at any age with 28 years of service.

Polls show that residents blame teachers and other state workers for Rhode Island's high taxes. Teachers counter that they put 9.5 percent of their salaries into the pension fund, one of the highest proportions in the nation.

And, as in other states, Rhode Island school officials say they can no longer rely on local property taxes to pay for education. Rhode Island is second in the nation in its reliance on property taxes to pay for schools, behind only Hawaii. In the last five years alone, some 70 percent of every new dollar spent on education in Rhode Island came from local property taxes. Providence Mayor David Cicilline, whose city spends half its budget on schools, has proposed a statewide income or sales tax for education, similar to a tax adopted by Michigan in the 1990s.

Some legislators support consolidating the whole state into one big district, arguing that there are school districts all over the country that are the size of Rhode Island. "There are good and bad things that go with decentralization," said John Tyler, chairman of the education department at Brown University. "When you look at Rhode Island, we have 36 school districts in this state, a small state, and that means you have 36 different purchasing managers buying pencils."

With school funding pains now spreading to the suburbs, Mary Sylvia Harrison said "the sun, the moon and the stars all seem to be in alignment" for the property tax to be replaced by some other funding mechanism. Fifteen other states now collect property taxes at the state level; in 16 others, there are lawsuits challenging the ways schools are financed. Harrison said that the issue will wind up in the courts in Rhode Island, too, if the legislature drags its feet on this no-win political issue. "I think people are becoming more in tune to the implications of sitting silent in the face of knowing there's an inequitable distribution of resources where the poor kids who need the most get the least," she said. "Though it might be a tough battle, it is a volatile civil rights issue."

The Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council has another plan. First, the council says, the state must figure out how much money should be spent per pupil. Said RIPEC's Gary Sasse, "Once you define what that figure is, you can say, okay, where should the money come from? It might be a question of looking at ways of having a more equitable distribution of the property tax or a system where you have a uniform property tax." This would not be "Robin Hood-like," he said. "In a state this small, you just aren't going to be able to do that." Instead of property tax revenues from rich towns going to poor ones, the difference would be made up by the state through income or sales taxes or proceeds from gambling.

But Brown's Tyler says that Robin Hood may have to come to the rescue after all. That's because the cash-strapped state government is already struggling to come up with money for schools, among other needs. The state's share of the cost of public education fell from 40 percent in 1995 to 37 percent last year. That makes Rhode Island 44th among the 50 states in state aid for all forms of education. Yet for every dollar a Rhode Island family earns, 11 cents already goes to taxes. That's ten percent higher than the national average. "If we want to move away from property taxes to a more broad-based system that's more reliant on some sort of state-level taxation, we face a tough task because we have extremely high taxes to start with," Tyler said. "We have to get real and talk about whether we're ready to redistribute money. There's not a lot of room to raise taxes."

That is also a problem for higher education. Despite Carcieri's calls to increase it, Rhode Island's investment in need-based student financial aid has shrunk by 42 percent over the past decade when compared with federal spending on aid. The state's investment in higher education as a whole has fallen by nearly 50 percent in the last 25 years, the Postsecondary Education Opportunity Organization has reported.

And while the General Assembly passed several education initiatives this year, it left out funding for an $8 million matching-grant program to encourage private contributions to the three public postsecondary institutions: University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, and the Community College of Rhode Island. Legislators said they just did not have the money. Less than 20 percent of flagship URI's $446 million annual operating budget now comes from the state, down from 28 percent a decade ago. Rhode Island ranks at the bottom nationwide in college affordability.

Meanwhile, the public colleges and universities have increasing numbers of unqualified students to contend with. "More and more of the students who come to our doorstep have passed the SAT and have reasonable grades coming in but are not really prepared," said URI's Weygand, who is also a former president of the New England Board of Education. "More and more every year are in an undeclared major, which normally indicates they're not certain of where they're going. That's the category of students that is more likely not to graduate, or to drop out."

 
Katherine O'Dea is executive director of the Tech Collective, an industry coalition that encourages programs that will improve the job skills of Rhode Island workers.
(Photo by M.J. Maloney, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
At the same time, Weygand said, the university, which enrolls 14,749 students (Rhode Island College enrolls 7,287 and the Community College of Rhode Island 16,293), is trying to improve the SAT scores and class rank of entering freshmen. "There is much greater demand for us to be an institution that has higher SAT scores, greater retention, a higher graduation rate. That sometimes is in conflict with the idea of trying to lift those disadvantaged students." The pressure, he said, comes from the general public. "U.S. News & World Report and other rating agencies really begin to pigeonhole people based on those measures. In doing that, they also dismiss the mission of public institutions as to the greater good-that is, to raise up those individuals who need the extra assistance."

URI has teamed up with the Children's Crusade and has guaranteed that community college students who maintain certain standards can automatically transfer to the university as juniors. "It's not enough," Weygand said. "What we really need to see is a quantifiable increase in the preparedness of students coming from the high schools."

Today, a higher education serves the role an apprenticeship in the mill once did, Weygand said. "Whether it was in Rhode Island, where there were the textile mills and the toolmaking companies, or in Maine, where there were the paper mills, or in Vermont, where there were the agricultural businesses, the students who graduated from high school went into those mills and learned the trade. They got their educations that way, and they were able to maintain a good lifestyle with those trades.

"Those trades are now gone. And the trade that's out there now is the information economy. We're still training and providing individuals with a quality education to move into today's economy, but today's economy is no longer the paper mills or the tool companies. It's biotech, informational science, health science—a range that needs much higher skills than ever before."

URI has concentrated on its pharmacy, nursing, engineering, bioscience, and world-renowned oceanography departments. It is building a $50 million biotech and sciences facility and a $15 million "inner-space" center for oceanographic projects. Bob Ballard, the explorer who located the Titanic, is on the faculty.

For Mary Sylvia Harrison of the Children's Crusade, the best way to change the system so that more Rhode Islanders can take advantage of these programs is to make the case that it is clearly in the economic interest of the state. "If you can't do it on the basis of philosophy and morality, you have to go to people's pocketbooks," she said. "There's a compelling case to be made for preparing people to fill these 21st century jobs, eight out of ten of which will be in the information economy." Added Tyler: "Any state that wants to fully participate in the new economy, and be able to garner the benefits of that, would not want to be at the bottom in state support for higher education. Because higher education has become synonymous with being successful in the new labor market."

For all its problems, Rhode Island is an interesting place to watch this evolution, said Elizabeth Burke Bryant, executive director of the advocacy group Rhode Island Kids Count and a transplant from New Hampshire. "What has been exciting about working on public policy issues in Rhode Island is that its small size does allow it to be a laboratory to link together public policies that in other states are run by vast departments that never talk to each other," Bryant said. "You feel like you can practically get your arms around these children and make sure that all of them get the education they need to succeed."


Jon Marcus is executive editor of Boston Magazine, and also covers U.S. higher education for the Times of London.

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National CrossTalk Winter 2006

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