Whither the Assembly on Education Boards?

Jan 4, 2013

Credit RIPR file

We’ve all heard that old New England adage, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. When it comes to education in Rhode Island, RIPR’s Scott MacKay has this collorary: if it is broken make sure you fix it before you change it.

At the end of the last General Assembly session, when nobody was looking, Rhode Island lawmakers decided to junk the state’s boards that oversee education. Without any hearings or studies, the Assembly, in its infinite wisdom, abolished both of the boards that made policies for higher education and kindergarten through grade 12.

In place of the two boards, the Assembly decreed that one board would oversee both k through 12 and higher education.

This bit of legislative ledger main occurred at the eleventh hour of the session and was tacked on to the state budget legislation. That made it nearly impossible for Gov. Lincoln Chafee to veto the move or for other lawmakers to dissect it.

At the time, the word around the State House was that the fix was in: the deal was done to install former State House insider George Caruolo of East Providence as the czar of  the state’s education bureaucracy.
Then the best laid plans of the Assembly leadership careened off the State House marble. Caroulo decided he didn’t have the time to devote to what is a more complicated job that he thought it would be. Now, both boards are gone and education institutions have no one overseeing them. (The always churning state House rumor mill has Chafee nixing Caruolo because he favors Providence Mayor Angel Taveras in the 2014  gubernatorial sweepstakes).

So last week the state Senate voted to delay the start of the new education board until March. The House is likely to go along.

It’s as if our lawmakers decided there should be a new bridge on the education front but didn’t design or build the span. Or even if they wanted to cross into new territory.

Rhode Islanders could take refuge in the mordant wit that so often accompanies the actions of the Smith Hill gang. We could all get a good laugh out of this if the stakes weren’t so high.

Instead it is overwhelmingly sad. Is there a more important item on the State House menu that providing for education?

We all know that a big reason that our economy lags behind our New England neighbors is our under educated work force. The political right blames the teacher unions for poor student outcomes, despite all evidence to the contrary. States with high teacher unionization rates have the best test scores, according to a research group affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. You don’t have to look any farther than Massachusetts to see the truth in this.

Poverty is obviously a factor in student performance. Yet the left has to understand that the system must change to accommodate this disturbing situation, especially in a recession-racked state where income inequality is growing.

The issues in higher education are much different than those in the K through 12 realm. State and local property taxpayers pay for most of elementary and secondary education. Public colleges and universities rely mostly on tuition, private fund-raising and federal money.

Rhode Island’s support for the University of Rhode Island is the lowest among New England’s land-grant state universities. In 2002, the state gave URI $84 million. A decade later that had dropped to $57 million. Students saddled with mountains of loan debt
graduate into an anemic job market.

But none of those issues were even discussed before lawmakers decided to blow up the system for governing education. As usual, no one in the legislative leadership has come forward to explain in any plausible manner why this was done.

One of the few on Smith Hill willing to talk about this mess is state Sen. Dawson Hodgson, a North Kingstown Republican. He put forward a plan that would have required the state to have a plan before moving ahead with the new board. Naturally, this move was defeated on a 32 to 6 vote.

It is true that many lawmakers were upset last year when the Board of Governors for Higher Education bypassed the Assembly and gave the children of illegal immigrants the right to lower in-state tuition rates at public colleges.

So the Smith Hill response was to abolish the board that made that decision.

Ah, the Rhode State House, where secrets go to die but grudges never do.

Scott MacKay’s commentary runs every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and at 5:45 during All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting and commentary on our `On Politics’ blog at Ripr.org