Scott MacKay Commentary: Changing Of The Guard In R.I. Education Leadership

Feb 6, 2015

Credit Elisabeth Harrison / RIPR

Big changes are in the offing for Rhode Island public education policy. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay on what’s at stake.

After six years as Rhode Island’s top education guru, education commissioner Deborah Gist is headed to her native Tulsa to become school superintendent. Eva-Marie Mancuso, chairwoman of the state education board, is out. Barbara Cottam is slated to become the new leader of the board as Gov. Gina Raimondo puts her stamp on arguably the most important mission of government, educating  the young.

Gist became a hot button figure in her tenure in Rhode Island, a leader who seemed to be viewed in black-and-white terms. The interest groups that make up our state’s education cauldron either loved Gist or hated her. The business community, the self-styled education reformers and school committee members praised her, while teacher unions and many of their allies in the General Assembly relentlessly criticized her.

Now that she’s history, hopefully a more nuanced view can emerge. It is difficult to argue with her passion for education policy. Ditto for her fine job in pushing Rhode Island to the forefront of the national agenda and attracting $75 million in federal  'Race to the Top' money from the Obama administration. And on her watch, Rhode Island finally approved a predictable state aid to education funding formula.

Gist’s advocacy for a stronger teacher evaluation regime and student testing will also be a part of her legacy. Yet, she often had trouble articulating a focused message. As is the case with too many education bureaucrats, she too often slipped into the Orwellian jargon of educationese. It would be great if a new commissioner could speak in eight-or ten word sentences moved by verbs.

As for as her battles with unions: the jury is still deliberating. Gist tried to break through that moldy, and self-defeating, Rhode Island 'we’ve always done things this way' attitude. She wanted new approaches to the ancient problems of under-achieving students and teachers who mail it in while waiting for their pensions.

Yet, no education commissioner who loses the confidence of most of the teachers can be successful. It was clear that Gist had lingered  beyond her shelf  life.  And in fairness to the unions, they are not nearly as aggressive as they once were. A generation ago, teacher strikes were a late-summer Rhode Island fixture, as predictable as Labor Day. Not so nowadays.

Does anyone really hear rebellions against the teacher unions in suburban communities, such as Lincoln, East Greenwich or Barrington, where student achievement and college admissions are prized by their communities.?  Everyone likes to point to Massachusetts, where tests show students have the nation’s highest achievement levels. Guess what, all the Bay State teachers are unionized.

Cottam obviously has the support of our new governor.  In Cottam’s favor:  her strong communication skills and her long tenure at the top levels of government and business. She has experience at both the Statehouse under Gov. Bruce Sundlun and, perhaps more importantly for her new role, as a top aide to former Mayor Joe Paolino at Providence City Hall.

There will be a learning curve, especially in mastering the different worlds of public K through 12 education and public higher education. Hopefully, she will retain the backing of Raimondo and the Assembly as the board works to recruit a new commissioner and build support for investments in education. Cottam’s children attend private school (La Salle Academy), but she is a native Rhode Islander, who is politically savvy, intensely loyal and sports a Herculean work ethic.

Hopefully, the board and Raimondo will be open to new ways to tackle old dilemmas. At the higher education level, it would be nice to see the state challenge alumni, especially at the University of Rhode Island, to be more generous. Why not try a challenge grant program, where URI and Rhode Island College get several million more in state aid on the condition that they raise matching money? This could be helpful in raising endowment and scholarship money to take on the biggest challenge in higher education today, which is affordability for students.

At the K through 12 element, the steepest climb is to develop policies that break the link between the economic level of parents and the achievement of their children. It is too easy just to collectively shrug our shoulders and blame our too-high childhood poverty rate for poor results. We need to be open to new ideas, such as the Providence Talks initiative championed by former Providence Mayor Angel Taveras to bolster the vocabulary of underprivileged children.

This we know: Our nation and state won’t be competitive in the 21st century without public education that prepares a new generation for the challenges of both the workplace and active citizenship in a perilous and unpredictable world.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 AM and 8:45 AM and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our On Politics blog at RIPR.org