As Providence school overhaul takes shape, the question remains: Is it legal?
PROVIDENCE — Shortly after Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green won approval Tuesday evening to begin taking control of the Providence school system, she sat down on a chair and took a deep breath.
Infante-Green acknowledges she hasn’t gotten much sleep since researchers at Johns Hopkins University released a stinging review of the district last month. And after talking with teachers, students, and community members, she’s convinced the true state of Providence is schools is “10 times worse” than the report suggests.
But as she begins crafting a plan to overhaul the state’s largest school system, she is entering uncharted territory. Because the state has never taken over a district the way Infante-Green is seeking to intervene in Providence, there is no guidebook that offers a step-by-step process for reconstitution.
And while state and city leaders say they are confident state law gives Infante-Green sweeping powers to reform Providence schools, observers say there is little precedent if any of her proposals are challenged in court.
“There are a lot of tools that were created with a lot of care and thought that have never been tested,” said David Abbott, a former deputy commissioner and general counsel to the Rhode Island Department of Education.
The most pressing unanswered question surrounds how Infante-Green will handle the teachers union contract.
The Johns Hopkins report identified the contract as one of the city’s most significant challenges, in part because it protects low-performing teachers, includes just one professional development day per year for teachers, and makes it difficult to hire new educators if existing ones have seniority.
One school principal told the researchers, “Bad teachers in the district are reshuffled. . . . They just make the rounds every year. It’s a toxic dynamic.”
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has repeatedly said the reason he supports the state taking control of the district is that he believes it has more authority to alter an existing union contract than the city does. But he hasn’t offered evidence to back up the assertion.
What is clear is that Elorza’s administration has not had huge success negotiating with educators. Since he took office in 2015, the mayor has signed into law two teachers union contracts that included few changes to the existing agreements. Earlier this month, he acknowledged the current contract offers no flexibility to fire “terrible teachers.”
“At the local level, we know that we don’t have the power, the tools, and the authority to bring about the transformation change that we need,” Elorza said.
So far, Infante-Green has been careful to avoid threatening to make unilateral changes to the union contract, which expires at the end of the 2020 school year. She has homed in on the lack of professional development, regularly asking people whether they would want their doctors to have one day of learning time each year.
The commissioner has largely deflected questions about whether she intends to streamline the hiring and firing process for educators. Instead, she says she plans to work closely with Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro and her members to improve the district.
“What I’ve demonstrated so far, I hope, is that I’m a very collaborative person,” Infante-Green said Tuesday. “We get the job done together.”
For her part, Calabro has said she’d be willing to reopen the contract with Infante-Green, although she has stopped short of committing to specific changes in the agreement. John DeSimone, a former House majority leader who works as an attorney for the teachers union, said this week he would expect any attempt to unilaterally change the contract to end up in court.
The state’s authority to take over Providence schools falls under the Paul W. Crowley Act, named after a longtime Democratic state representative and education advocate who died in 2007. The law gives the state the ability to intervene in failing schools, but it does not clearly explain the process for taking over an entire school system.
Abbott, the former deputy education commissioner, helped draft regulations on supporting the state’s lowest-performing schools in 2010. When it comes to reconstituting a school or district, reforms “may range from restructuring the school’s governance, budget, program, personnel, and/or may include decisions regarding the continued operation of the school,” according to the regulations.
But Abbott noted the state has not sought to use many of its powers in the past. When the Department of Education sought to take over Providence’s Hope High School in the early 2000s, Abbott said, many of the reform measures were agreed to by both the teachers union president and the superintendent.
Infante-Green appears to be following a similar path. She said only Elorza, the Providence City Council, the Providence School Board, and interim Superintendent Fran Gallo have the right to object to the takeover, and none of those parties has raised significant concerns yet.
If there is a challenge, Abbott said, he believes the law is on the state’s side.
“I do think there are ample legal underpinnings, but they’ve never really been used,” he said.