Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green has had a rough couple of weeks, but she was in her happy place on Tuesday morning.
She got to introduce Providence to its new interim superintendent, Dr. Javier Montañez, a homegrown leader who is popular among teachers and respected by administrators. The two toured Mary E. Fogarty Elementary School, where she worked on reading skills with fifth graders and had a third grade boy clearly explain standard algorithm math to a bunch of confused adults.
Then it was back to real life: A teachers’ union in Providence that finds scandal in everything she does or doesn’t do (teacher Twitter took her to task this week for school buses being too hot). A legislature that seems to have little interest in investigating what some have called racist attacks against her. And a governor who wants to truly improve the state’s largest school district while somehow staying on everyone’s good side, including hers.
The next three months will probably decide the fate of the Providence school takeover, as Governor Dan McKee’s team tries to reach an agreement on a contract for the union and searches for a permanent superintendent of the district.
But the most pressing question is the one few people are asking: What does Infante-Green’s future look like?
Right now, she’s in a state of limbo.
McKee hasn’t yet sided with her against the teachers’ union (and it’s worth noting he could still blame this dispute on former governor Gina Raimondo). But he’s also not yet prepared to send Infante-Green packing, a decision that would be the most significant change made during his administration’s first 100 days.
But by leaving Infante-Green hanging, McKee is making it nearly impossible for her to do her job.
After spending a full school year failing to reach a deal with the union, Infante-Green personally agrees with Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza that it’s time to challenge the teachers’ union contract in court. But Raimondo, as she was being vetted to join President Joe Biden’s administration, publicly put the brakes on that idea. McKee reiterated Tuesday that he opposes a court challenge.
McKee pulled Infante-Green out of the contract negotiations last month, questioning the need for the commissioner to be spending hundreds of hours in those discussions. But when philosophy and policy, not money and benefits, are the primary challenges, this isn’t a normal contract negotiation.
McKee’s team could strike a deal with the union tomorrow, but Infante-Green and Montañez (or the next superintendent) will need a contract that actually shakes up the system, potentially by extending the school day or the school year, or allowing for more flexibility when it comes to hiring and firing teachers. We know from history that a status quo deal simply preserves the status quo.
To be sure, Infante-Green needs to make some changes to her style as well.
She came to Rhode Island two years ago as the change agent who said she wouldn’t send either of her two children to Providence schools. Parents and community leaders thought her honesty was refreshing, but some of her comments were offensive to teachers who have spent their careers in Providence schools.
It’s probably too late to repair a relationship with the teachers’ union, but Infante-Green needs to spend some time truly engaging with the Providence schools community this summer. That will mean some tough conversations about what still needs to happen in the city’s schools, but it will also give her a chance to highlight some of the changes that have taken place.
McKee may not yet have made up his mind about Infante-Green, but her future may still be in her hands. If she can recapture some of the momentum she had in 2019, the governor will have good reason to offer her new contract next year. But if things stay the same, he’ll have no good reason to keep her around.