PROVIDENCE – Gina Raimondo had been governor less than two years in September 2016 when she made a bold promise to children in Rhode Island.
“Today, I’m drawing a line in the sand and setting a clear goal for Rhode Island: By 2025, when the kids who were born this year reach third grade, three out of four will be reading at grade level,” Raimondo declared.
The goal was lofty, but it came it with little political downside for Raimondo. Even if she had served two full terms as governor, the Democrat was slated to leave office in January 2023, well before the deadline.
Raimondo is now leaving office sooner than she imagined, to join President Joe Biden’s cabinet as Secretary of Commerce. A US Senate committee is expected to vote on her nomination Wednesday, and she could be confirmed by the full Senate by the end of the week.
As she prepares to step down as governor, observers say her education legacy is similar to her tenure at the State House: ambitious, but incomplete. She garnered national headlines for her effort to offers two years of tuition-free community college to all high school graduates, moved the ball on expanding pre-K programming, and led the charge to repair crumbling classrooms across the state.
But she’s departing long before the state-led intervention of the Providence schools has showed any meaningful progress and only about 48 percent of third graders were reading at grade level during the 2018-2019 school year, according to results from the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System. (Students didn’t take the RICAS last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.)
“All of these education efforts need 10-years’ time to really judge them,” said Angela Romans, an education consultant and former co-director of district and systems transformation at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. “But there were a lot of big ideas, and maybe not enough either follow-through or commitment.”
Romans said Raimondo will be best known for the Rhode Island Promise scholarship program, which guarantees all new high school graduates two years of free tuition at the Community College of Rhode Island. Raimondo was among the first governors in the country to embrace the concept of free college, and state lawmakers have introduced legislation to make the program permanent this year.
But she said the state’s takeover of Providence school schools in 2019, which would not have been possible without Raimondo’s support, did not come with a clear plan. While the pandemic has pushed the state’s intervention out of the headlines, a bitter dispute with the Providence Teachers Union has been expensive with few signs of progress.
“My sense is the governor and her staff either wanted to do more or have a splashier legacy,” Romans said. She said the administration focused on a few specific initiatives, but Raimondo rarely used her political capital on education.
Raimondo declined to be interviewed for this story.
Rhode Island has long trailed Massachusetts when it comes to standardized test scores and high school graduation rates, and Raimondo has long said improving the educational system is vital for stimulating the state’s economy.
During her first term, Raimondo led the effort to have every high school in the state offer computer science classes and pushed every high school to offer the PSAT and SAT for free in school.
But it was her plans to improve early childhood education that might pay off in the long run, according to Elizabeth Burke Bryant, the executive director of Rhode Island Kids Count, the state’s leading child advocacy organization.
The National Institute for Early Education Research has routinely ranked Rhode Island as offering the highest-quality pre-kindergarten programming in the country, and Raimondo has advocated for the state to offer universal pre-K. The state has tripled the number of high-quality pre-K seats available, according to Burke Bryant.
“She knows that if it’s a high-quality pre-K, the positive benefits last well into the schools years,” Burke Bryant said. “The quality of the program is what determines the outcomes.”
Some of the students who were born in 2016, when Raimondo made her pledge, will enter kindergarten this year. Burke Bryant said those children will be better prepared for school, but she stressed that more work needs to be done to accomplish Raimondo’s goal of reaching 75 percent reading proficiency for third graders by 2025.
“I hope that we continue to push for that goal because it really matters for how our kids will do in terms of overall educational goals,” Burke Bryant said.
Others said Raimondo is leaving office with a mixed record on education.
Eva Marie Mancuso, a former chairwoman of the state Board of Education, said Raimondo’s top accomplishment was to lead the charge to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars to repair or replace school buildings across the state. The construction in many districts will take place throughout the rest of this decade.
But Mancuso said Raimondo and her aides sought to control education from the governor’s office rather than through the Board of Education and the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, creating blind spots for the administration. She said too many of the people advising Raimondo don’t send their children to public schools – Raimondo’s children attend private school – and many rarely stepped foot in the public schools during her time as governor.
“For me, if you are trying to gain credibility in the stakeholder community, you need to choose people that are part of it,” Mancuso said.
Raimondo will leave office having had three different education commissioners: Deborah Gist, who was hired by Republican Governor Don Carcieri and then remained in place under independent Lincoln Chafee, left to be superintendent of schools in her hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the first year Raimondo became governor. Gist was replaced by Ken Wagner, who came from New York and stayed until 2019. Angélica Infante-Green, who also came from New York, has been commissioner ever since.
State Representative Rebecca Kislak, a Providence Democrat, said she think Raimondo is leaving office with a strong overall record on education, but she acknowledged continued concern about the state takeover of the city’s schools.
“The takeover plan in and of itself has plenty of lofty goals, but it’s missing the brass tacks to-do list,” Kislak said
And of course, no conversation about Raimondo and education can be complete without acknowledging COVID-19.
Raimondo was one of the first governors in the country to move the state to full distance learning last March, winning the full support of the state’s teachers’ unions in the process. But she was aggressive about reopening schools in the fall, and she clashed with the unions in the final months of 2020 as they sought to move to distance learning when virus cases spiked.
Cranston Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse said Raimondo had a few missteps during the pandemic, but she said the governor “realized how important it is for our schools to be vital parts of strategic planning, to evolve, and to be responsive to our families.”
“Looking back, I agreed with most of the COVID response related to schools, although initially I may not have said that,” Nota-Masse said. “It was uncomfortable at first, and contentious, but it is difficult to deny that children need access to their schools.”
Correction: The original version of this report stated that 40 percent of third graders are reading at grade level. The actual proficiency rate was 48 percent, as of the 2018-19 school year.