A vote Monday at the State Board of Education may create a leadership void at a key moment for opponents of a new test-based high school graduation requirement.
Those opponents have lined up some 20 people from the state’s higher education community to testify at Monday’s meeting, but they may be overshadowed by a vote to turn State Education Board Chair Eva-Marie Mancuso into the state’s Interim Commissioner of Higher Education. Governor Lincoln Chafee announced Mancuso as his choice for the post on Friday.
Mancuso, an attorney, would have to leave her position on the board and take a leave of absence from her law firm to take on the full-time job of interim higher education commissioner. Chafee’s spokeswoman Christine Huntsinger says the governor would appoint a new board chair and select a new member to fill Mancuso’s open seat. She was not specific about whether the new chair would come from within the board’s current ranks, or when exactly the open seat would be filled.
If Mancuso is confirmed, it will leave the State Board of Education with no clear leader as it heads into an August retreat and faces several vexing questions, among them whether to re-think testing as a high school graduation requirement. The policy has forced 4,000 high school juniors to take special classes to prepare for a retake of the standardized state test, the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP).
Critics say the requirement unfairly leaves many urban, low-income students with questions about whether they will be allowed to graduate. Supporters say the graduation requirement is a key part of efforts to improve Rhode Island’s public schools.
One strong advocate for the rule, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, has repeatedly pointed out that students will earn diplomas if they show improvement on the re-take. However, some lawmakers and community groups have called for the policy to be re-evaluated.
As Education Board Chair, Eva-Marie Mancuso appeared supportive of Gist and the test-based graduation requirement, although she seemed to waiver slightly in recent weeks, saying she wanted to look at whether NECAP was the best test to use. She had planned to lead the Board of Education through a study of the policy during its August retreat
With Mancuso poised to leave the board, the question is whether the governor will appoint a new chair who supports high-stakes testing or one who sympathizes with its opponents. The change in leadership and the addition of a new board member could provide an opportunity for advocates on either side of the debate.