There isn’t an honest conversation to be had with any of the players currently involved in the state’s floundering takeover of Providence schools because management and union leadership are so blinded by their hatred – yes, hatred – for one another that you simply can’t trust anything either side has to say.
And while the leaders of the Rhode Island Department of Education, the Providence School Department, and the Providence Teachers Union continue to act like catty middle-schoolers, the state’s political leaders -- the governor, the mayor, the speaker of the House, and the Senate president -- have done absolutely nothing about it. They’re like those kids during a playground fight who stand around giggling while they eagerly wait for the next punch to be thrown.
Which is why I decided to find some grownups to talk to about this unholy mess, and ended up sitting down this week with former superintendent Susan Lusi and former Providence Teachers Union president Steve Smith to discuss how to get the takeover back on track and maybe, you know, improve the lives of a few kids in the state’s largest school district.
Lusi and Smith have been out of the game awhile now. She left the district nearly eight years (and four superintendents) ago, and now runs a consulting firm, Mass Insight Education & Research. He stepped away from the union nine years ago for a job with the laborers’ union, although he recently took a job as a senior advisor to Mayor Brett Smiley in City Hall.
In December, Lusi and Smith penned an op-ed for the education news website The 74 calling on state leaders to add a provision to the education law to let Providence pay teachers more based on their performance, not just years of service; fire teachers who aren’t up to snuff; and grant tenure after five years instead of three.
“You have to start with a blank piece of paper,” Lusi said.
These aren’t exactly novel concepts, but they have all largely been nonstarters in the past for obvious reasons: The district hasn’t always had the money to pay teachers more, and the teachers don’t have faith in the district to come up with a fair system for evaluating them.
In the op-ed, Lusi and Smith wrote that existing state law essentially rewards everybody for protecting their turf. Meanwhile, this contentious relationship between labor and management means that nobody trusts each other, and schools never improve.
Sounds a lot like some of the issues the state takeover was supposed to solve, right?
Only it hasn’t.
Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green’s threats that “something drastic” would happen if the teachers didn’t agree to contract concessions never materialized.
The union refused to budge.
And the students lost. Again. The vast majority still aren’t anywhere close to reading or doing math at grade level.
“There’s just no data that is saying kids are doing well,” Lusi said.
Sure, no one saw a pandemic coming when the state took control in 2019, but a few tweaks to curriculum and school building repairs that were largely already in the pipeline is not what anyone would consider transformational. Even former governor Gina Raimondo has said that leaving Rhode Island for a job in the Biden administration before the takeover truly took shape is one of her biggest regrets.
But Lusi and Smith say they’re convinced that there still is a short window of opportunity for everyone to get more serious about fixing the school system.
For one, Governor Dan McKee is at the very beginning of his four-year term, which means he doesn’t have to worry about politics as much as he did last year or as much as he will two years from now as he mulls reelection. There’s also gobs of federal money that still hasn’t been touched by Providence schools that could be used to pay teachers more to extend the school day and the school year, and offer even larger bonuses to those who take on more responsibilities – like coaching their peers or running after-school programs.
From a union perspective, Smith sees a long-term problem: If teachers don’t cooperate to improve public schools, they’ll be out of a job.
Student enrollment in October was just over 20,000, which is about 20 percent fewer kids from when Smith was in charge of the union and Lusi was superintendent. Several charter schools already have approved plans to expand in the coming years, and there’s clear demand from parents for even further growth.
“We have to make existing schools more desirable,” Smith said, adding that, “I’ll always bet on Providence teachers.”
Lusi and Smith aren’t naive about their chances of convincing anyone to rewrite state law.
When they both worked in the district, they garnered national praise from the Obama administration for creating an education labor-management organization called United Providence that was supposed to oversee three of the city’s worst schools.
It all sounded great. It would be run similar to a charter school, principals and teachers would be empowered, and student test scores would eventually improve. The project went down in flames three years later, a result of poor implementation, budget cuts, and administration changes.
It’s possible that United Providence would have never worked out, but it’s also possible that it didn’t last long enough to ever have a chance of succeeding. Lusi and Smith maintain that they had the right idea at the wrong time.
How about now?
“We’ve had supportive conversations, but it’s not a movement yet,” Lusi admitted.
And there’s the problem in a nutshell.
Any momentum that was there for the takeover in 2019 has been lost. Management and the union have no trust in each other. Influential groups like the Rhode Island Foundation and the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce have moved on to flashier issues. And elected officials have essentially abandoned ship.
Maybe it’s time for someone in charge to get off the playground and ask some adults -- Sue and Steve -- for help.