There’s a famous aphorism about change, or the lack thereof, that goes “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” When it comes to fundamentally reforming the Providence Teacher’s contract, this saying sadly comes to mind. I and many previous mayors and superintendents have tried to negotiate with the Providence Teachers Union (PTU) but the realities of state law, and its onerous arbitration process, have prevented us from realizing the transformational changes we have sought.
The John Hopkins report made clear that the teacher’s contract was “oriented towards staff, not students;” “based on adults, not children;” and “a roadblock.” The contract is so “thick” and restrictive that it effectively ties superintendents’ and principals’ hands behind their backs. Under the current teachers’ contract, there is not a human being alive who could turn this district around.
And today, nearly two years after I brought the state in to take over Providence Schools so that they could invoke their extraordinary powers to transform the teachers’ contract, there has been no progress on that front. The state has tried to negotiate a new contract but it has been met once again with an obstinate union leadership unwilling to reform a contract that perpetuates an unacceptable status quo, that is the poster-child of structural racism, and protects adults at the expense of children.
Given this unfortunate, if not entirely unpredictable situation, PPSD parents, community members and I have called on the state to immediately invoke the full powers of the Crowley Act to make the necessary changes to the teachers’ contract. We simply cannot allow the current regressive and restricting contract to hold the future of our city’s children hostage any longer.
As Mayor, I know firsthand just how challenging reforming the PTU contract is. In 2018, I attempted to negotiate a new contract with bold changes to the hiring and firing process designed to ensure that the best teachers, not simply the teachers with the most seniority, would be at the front of every classroom. The result of this effort to change the status quo: over 300 union members shouting down my State of the City Address. As Mayor, I am more than willing to take the heat for difficult changes, but the PTU’s next move was to invoke “work to rule” where teachers would not perform any tasks beyond what was spelled out in the contract. In other words, union leadership was willing to punish students unless they got their way in blocking meaningful changes.
In the face of these tactics, my administration ultimately did reach a new contract with some improvements, but not the transformative changes I knew our students needed. Reflecting on the legal roadblocks to meaningful change in our district, I spoke with then-Governor Raimondo about getting involved in the Providence schools. She floated the idea of the state taking over a few underperforming middle schools; I told her I was only interested if we worked to reform the whole district and took on the entire teachers’ contract directly. We both believed that the moment required bold steps and so we agreed to move forward.
In November of 2019, the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education voted to allow the RI Department of Education to take over Providence Schools. While some changes have been implemented since then, meaningful change will not come until we take a full, confident, bold step towards fundamentally reforming the contract.
History has taught us that the usual contract negotiation process will not suffice. That is why now is the time to fully utilize the statutory powers that led us to bring the state into our school district in the first place, including the unilateral implementation of new hiring and firing policies that will put students’ needs first. If this results in pickets or legal action, so be it. All of our state’s children deserve a quality education and in this instance, extraordinary powers are required to overcome a broken political status quo that prevents the change our students deserve.
Jorge Elorza is Mayor of the City of Providence.