Our Schools Are Political Footballs

Illustration by Habesha Petros

The RI Dept. of Education (RIDE) took control of Providence Schools on Oct. 19, 2019. Since then, the city’s appointed School Board and political leadership have had no formal power or influence over decisions about school staffing, curriculum or overall school strategy and policy.

That was the whole point of the school takeover – the scathing 2019 Johns Hopkins School of Education report on our failing schools pinned blame for chronic failure squarely on the confused and conflictive culture of Providence Schools governance.

But does replacing local elected and appointed officials with state bureaucrats really work? Who has independent oversight authority to identify problems and ensure they are fixed during the takeover? When the takeover ends, how will Providence hold schools accountable in a way that actually supports student success?

The state takeover in October of 2019 aimed to replace a tangle of local authorities with one ultimate decision-maker, the Commissioner of the RI Dept. of Education (RIDE), Angélica Infante-Green. Instead of answering to a locally elected Mayor and City Council, an appointed School Board and a Byzantine “Central Office,” school administrators would now get their marching orders and oversight from RIDE. Commissioner Infante-Green was able to select Harrison Peters, an educator from Florida, as the new Superintendent without the approval of any local body or official.

RIDE’s Turnaround Action Plan (TAP), released in June of 2020, projected steady, statistically measured progress over the next five years. By 2025, according to the plan, Providence Schools would have higher test scores, better-qualified teachers, satisfied parents and successful students.

But before the plan was even complete, schools everywhere had been totally derailed by the COVID pandemic. With limited access to the internet, students in urban districts were particularly hard-hit when in-person classrooms closed in March of 2020.

Instead of rapid gains, Providence Schools, like urban schools everywhere, suffered from higher student and teacher absenteeism, emotional trauma and learning losses. RIDE’s most recent TAP Update from March of this year shows no significant progress in the success criteria set by RIDE across the prior three full school years (2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22). In March of 2022  RIDE pushed the TAP completion timeline out two years, to the 2026-2027 school year.

With no gains in the first two years, local leaders began to chafe under RIDE’s rule. They may have surrendered control of the system, but that didn’t stop them from asking questions.

And there were valid questions. New research found that state takeovers of local school districts have not improved student outcomes. Takeovers have been effective at taking political power away from minority-led communities, particularly those with Black leadership, according to Annenberg and another study.

And there were problems in Providence. Politicians howled in May of 2021 when Superintendent Harrison Peters, was paid $161,000 to resign after revelations about physical interactions between one of his top aides and children.

Last year, Sen. Sam Zurier and Rep. Rebecca Kislak, both of Providence, introduced legislation that would have created a new nine-member Board of Trustees with authority over school appointments and policies during the takeover.

Commissioner Infante-Green and Providence Schools Superintendent Javier Montañez pushed back hard. RIDE complained that the proposed bill “adds the exact type of extraneous bureaucracy identified as an issue in the Johns Hopkins report.” The heavily amended bill that eventually passed merely requires RIDE to make quarterly reports on progress, reports it was already committed to producing, to the existing School Board. It also gives the Board an advisory role on senior staff hires.

The officially disempowered Providence School Board began to raise questions of its own. Last year, its youngest member, 20-year old Ty’Relle Stephens, revealed allegations that a program designed to help struggling high school students earn graduation credits was providing unearned credits instead. RIDE’s investigation found no wrongdoing, but also little evidence that students were doing the required work.

As that story unfolded, anonymous informants claiming to be senior level officials at Providence Schools began to share claims that RIDE wasn’t dealing with a hostile work environment and systemic dysfunctions at the Providence Schools central office. After angry exchanges between Superintendent Montañez and the School Board, one Board member resigned, citing the poisonous atmosphere.

By last December, the dispute looked and sounded very much like pre-takeover Providence school politics.

Then, the School Board had a re-set. Three terms were slated to end in December.  The resignation added a fourth vacancy on the nine-member Board. Mayor Smiley named Carolina Roberts-Santana, George Matouk, Toni Akin and Erlin Rogel to the Board. In February, Rogel was unanimously elected President of the Board by his new colleagues.

The new president seems intent on creating a calmer and more collaborative School Board. “There was a lot of drama, but no real solutions emerged,” observed Rogel of the 2022 controversies.

Rogel attended Providence schools himself and graduated from Classical HS. He graduated from Roger Williams Law School, but instead of pursuing a legal career, he joined Teach for America. He was assigned to Gilbert Stuart Middle School, where he had once been a student.

Erlin Rogel, School Board President

“Teaching in Providence felt like coming home,” Erlin says. He taught for four years, then worked for the Providence School Department in government relations. Today, he works in the office of Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos.

“The elephant in the room is the fact that RIDE’s authority over Providence Schools expires next year,” says Rogel. “My focus is to set the stage for a return to local control and not to wind up where we started.” He is aiming to provide more professional development to Board members and to deepen Board members engagement with the public both at Board meetings and at community events.

Angélica Infante-Green, RI Commissioner of Education

It’s not certain when RIDE’s authority will really end. The extended TAP timeline implies a RIDE role through 2027. Still, it’s more likely that RIDE’s authority will last exactly as long as Commissioner Infante-Greene retains the sitting Governor’s political support. With every public controversy, her position grows less secure.

Whenever the turnaround ends, the old Providence School Board will almost certainly be transformed or replaced entirely. New City Charter amendments ratified by voters in 2022 provides for a 10-member School Board with half its members elected and half appointed. Barring some reversal of the amendments, the new hybrid Board will convene in January 2025 after the November 2024 general election.

Not so fast, says state Rep. Rebecca Kislak (D), who represents Providence’s East Side. “I see the hybrid Board as the worst of both worlds.” She observes that the five elected members will each need to run a citywide campaign at a cost well above $100,000. Campaign contributors will have outsized influence over who ultimately serves. Moreover, the Mayor’s five appointed members are likely to vote as a block, giving the elected members very little power.

Kislak says that most elected officials are highly opposed to the hybrid Board. She believes that legislation will prevent this charter amendment from going into effect.

As an alternative, Kislak proposes that the city and state carefully consider entirely new models of school governance to avoid a return to the old status quo. With help from volunteer Alissa Simon, Kislak has written a Report on Providence Schools: Takeover Status and Future Governance, an 18-page report that summarizes the history of the Providence takeover, reviews research on state takeovers across the US and looks at different ways that local schools are and could be governed.

Kislak herself leans toward a more decentralized, school-based system, where each school has its own community-based governing board with considerable power to make policy and direct resources within the school. This might be similar to the way non-profit organizations govern themselves, but in a way that empowers the three main stakeholders in public education: students, parents and teachers.  The Kislak report notes that our city already has a lively network of advocacy groups representing these constituencies.

The new semi-elected School Board voters adopted does little to provide these three stakeholder groups with more meaningful influence in their schools. Nor does this change alter the dynamic of conflict among elected and appointed officials that we had before the takeover.

Rep. Kislak’s report raises intriguing alternatives that could break the pattern that has held our schools back for so long. But the clock is ticking toward 2024 School Board elections. Will Providence change course in time?

Jonathan Howard is Co-founder of Cause & Effect, Inc., a consulting company that provides strategic planning facilitation, fund development planning and board strengthening to mission-driven organizations. He is a long- time resident of Providence. His three children all attended Providence Public Schools from kindergarten through high school.

Providence School Board Nominations to serve on the Providence School Board are open until November 17th at 4:30pm. For more information, go to: https://www.providenceri.gov/mayor/providence-school-board-application/