This article originally appeared in the Providence Journal.
During his recent state of the city address describing the climate of education, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh observed: “Instead of unity, too often we’ve seen schools pitted against one another — by adults.” He could have been describing the situation in many states, cities and towns across the country — and definitely what we’re seeing in Rhode Island.
Much of the recent educational conversation in Rhode Island has focused on the “winners and losers” of the funding formula, the “parallel systems” of education with district and charter public schools, and positioning the “95 percent of district students” against the “5 percent attending charters.” If we cannot move away from debates that divide our students and schools and towards discussions about supporting 100 percent of them, we have lost in more ways than just in education.
Take the recent decision by General Electric to relocate its headquarters to Boston — and bring with it high-paying jobs. As with education, Massachusetts beat out all competitors to rise to the top of the pack.
The decision by GE to relocate to Massachusetts included a number of factors. However, one that should not be ignored is the state’s laser focus on high standards and its continued investment to not only minor education reforms but also full-scale system transformation to support their students — and their future workforce. The chief executive of GE touted Massachusetts’ educated workforce among the factors of the “ecosystem of innovation” the company sought in a relocation.
To attract companies, but more importantly to strengthen Rhode Island, we must think holistically about innovating and improving education. That means putting divisive politics behind us. It means re-imaging our education system so that it retains and attracts families and students to stay and prosper in our state.
We have 28,000 fewer students in public schools in Rhode Island than we did in 2005. This trend will not change in the current climate or by placing limitations on choices and opportunities for families. But we need it to change in order to rebuild our state.
Is Rhode Island ready? Are we ready to transform education in a way that’s student-centered and compelling, from pre-K through higher education?
We have the tools to make this happen: Some of the strongest standards in the nation and a funding formula that is built around the student. None of this is perfect, but it’s heads above where we were a few years ago.
However, I fear that we will lose this opportunity and once again trail our neighboring powerhouse by entrenching education debates in turf battles and losing the important ground we’ve made. While Massachusetts is calling for unity and proposing financial solutions to allow public charter schools to grow, in Rhode Island the House of Representatives recently passed two bills that combined and in practice would be the equivalent of a moratorium on public charter school growth and expansion.
Today, Gov. Gina Raimondo will present her budget. It will be a chance for Rhode Island leaders to promote collaboration and call for bold action and investment in education. It will also be a pivotal decision point for our state: Do we continue the dysfunction that is plaguing education discussions? Or do we choose to come together and support all students, teachers and schools?
Recently, Commissioner Ken Wagner addressed the House Education Committee and was called “a breath of fresh air.” We need more fresh air in our stale conversations. Now is Rhode Island’s opportunity to end the politicking and infighting, pick our heads up, and move forward. It’s time we prioritize our most valuable asset, our people.
To improve education over the long term requires an unwavering commitment by the entire elected and education leadership to implement reforms we’ve made with fidelity and to continue to make more.
I look forward to the day when Rhode Island students outperform the rest of the country, companies clamor to join our economy, and the job market we have brings Rhode Islanders home from other states or after college, encourages them to stay. Rhode Island, we’re ready!