Incumbent Governor Dan McKee has built his political career out of being an innovator in education.
Helena Foulkes, one of his Democratic challengers, says she’s willing to bet her political future on improving student test scores.
Republican Ashley Kalus is making school choice a centerpiece of her campaign for the state’s top job.
And all of the candidates hoping to be Rhode Island’s next governor know that, if elected, they’ll inherit control of the problem-plagued Providence school district, where the vast majority of its 23,000 students aren’t reading or doing math at grade level.
But with less than two weeks until the Democratic primary, the topic of education has been like a passing summer thunderstorm, complete with attention-grabbing noises that are quickly forgotten a few hours later. And the lack of a true vision specifically for the state’s largest school system could widen the opportunity gap poor kids across the city face for another generation.
The state took control of Providence schools in 2019, under former governor Gina Raimondo, with a goal of transforming a district that was quite literally falling apart at the seams, with crumbling classrooms, woeful test scores, and low teacher morale. Then a global pandemic set in, further disrupting every facet of life for close to two years.
Even grading on a steep curve to adjust for COVID-19, it would be inaccurate to label the takeover a success, although Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green points out that progress has been made on test scores, implementing a quality curriculum, and offering more career pathways for high school students.
So how will the gubernatorial candidates further advance the takeover? It depends.
Start with McKee. The incumbent was the lieutenant governor when Raimondo initiated the takeover, and he had no say in the decision. He understandably had to focus on the pandemic when he became governor, but last year he did help to negotiate a new teachers’ union contract in Providence. Infante-Green told me this week that the next deal must be more “aggressive.”
McKee is an education guy, having led the effort to open mayoral-controlled charter schools, some of which are now among the best-performing in the state. His support for alternative public schools has always drawn the ire of the teachers’ union, but he has won the endorsement of the National Education Association Rhode Island. (Providence’s educators are affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, the other major teachers’ union.)
On the campaign trail, McKee has not been advocating for more charter schools in Providence, and he said during a debate this week he wants to transfer control back to the next mayor. He has praised new Providence Superintendent Javier Montañez, and he pushed to extend Infante-Green’s contract as commissioner, which frustrated members of the Providence Teachers Union.
Foulkes, a former CVS executive, has vowed to not seek reelection if students don’t improve their test scores in the coming years. That’s a statewide pledge that isn’t specific to Providence, and neither is her broader education plan – to spend $1 billion on recovering from the learning loss that came from COVID-19.
Certainly, her broader ideas for expanding after-school programming, fully implementing universal pre-kindergarten, and covering the college tuition for students who want to be teachers would benefit Providence, but she hasn’t offered a specific vision for the city’s school system. Then again, she does have the endorsement of Mayor Jorge Elorza, who has long clashed with the Providence Teachers Union, but has also been critical of what he views as a lack of progress during the takeover.
Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, who is running neck-and-neck with McKee in the polls, has the endorsement of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers & Health Professionals, of which the Providence Teachers Union is a member.
Gorbea has been less vocal on education than her opponents, but she is advocating for a constitutional right to education, which could give parents the ability to sue districts providing inadequate services. She also supports offering universal pre-kindergarten and expanding the Rhode Island Promise college scholarship program at the Community College of Rhode Island to the state’s two four-year colleges: the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College.
Two other Democrats running in the primary, but trailing far behind in the polls, are former secretary of state Matt Brown and health care advocate Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz. Brown has said he wants to immediately return control of Providence schools to the city, and he is proposing paying every teacher in the state at least $60,000 a year. (The average starting salary is $44,500.) Muñoz is a staunch advocate for changing the state’s education funding formula, which would result in more money for the city’s schools.
Kalus is the Republican frontrunner who has flooded the airwaves with campaign commercials for months. She has vowed to be the “education governor,” and she talks about improving schools more than the Democrats in the race.
Kalus is vague on the details, but she has repeatedly said she supports allowing students in underperforming schools choose to attend better schools, even if they live in a different district. For example, a student attending a failing Providence middle school might have the opportunity to attend a higher-performing school in a neighboring city or town.
She hasn’t explained how she would pay for her plan, but in Rhode Island, per-pupil student aid largely follows the child no matter where they attend public school. It’s unclear how many children would be eligible for her program.
Although she hasn’t offered a plan specific for Providence, a Kalus governorship might test the true power of the state takeover. Those who supported giving control to the state, like Mayor Elorza and Infante-Green, have said they believe the state has the ability to force dramatic contractual changes on the teachers’ union.
However, any attempt to unilaterally impose changes on teachers would result in a messy legal battle that Raimondo wanted to avoid, and the current Democratic candidates have shown no appetite for such a fight. Kalus would likely be more willing to take a chance, but she would face strong pushback from the House and Senate, where Democrats enjoy super majorities.
Whether they like it or not, the next governor is going to have to come up with a more defined plan for Providence schools.
Otherwise, the calls to give the district back to the next mayor – Gonzalo Cuervo, Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune, or Brett Smiley – will only grow louder.