PROVIDENCE — Four months after a devastating report outlined widespread dysfunction and subpar student performance throughout Providence schools, Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green announced Tuesday the state will take control of the district for at least five years, beginning Nov. 1.
Infante-Green and the superintendent that she plans to appoint in the coming weeks will have sweeping authority over budgetary and personnel decisions for Rhode Island’s largest school system, which serves 24,000 students, many of them minorities from low-income households.
But while Infante-Green’s order formally grants the state the power to take over Providence schools, the commissioner acknowledged she still needs to spend the next several months crafting a specific turnaround plan for the district. Any comprehensive changes probably won’t take effect until the 2020-2021 school year, she said.
The announcement also leaves open-ended when the takeover will end, putting that decision in the commissioner’s hands after the initial five-year period. She said she is hoping to avoid a decadeslong state takeover like the one that played out in Newark, N.J. But she believes a multi-year plan is necessary.
“We don’t dismantle things without having something to put in its place,” Infante-Green told reporters Tuesday.
Infante-Green announced she intended to take control of Providence schools in July, shortly after researchers from Johns Hopkins University released a scathing review of the district that compared the district to some of the lowest-performing school systems in the country. At the time, the commissioner declared she wasn’t comfortable sending her children to any school in the city.
She has spent the last several months negotiating a deal behind-the-scenes with city leaders and following a legal process where none of the potentially aggrieved parties — Mayor Jorge Elorza, the City Council, the Providence School Board, or interim Superintendent Fran Gallo — objected to the state takeover.
Infante-Green said she has offered a contract to a new superintendent, but she declined to identify the candidate. She said she expects to have the new leader in place by Nov. 1.
The order requires Infante-Green to evaluate the turnaround plan annually and release her findings to the public. She said she does not plan to appoint a new school board, but she will establish a parent advisory committee this year. She said interim Superintendent Fran Gallo will be retained as a consultant.
Infante-Green also said she expects to close several schools that are in poor condition, although she declined to name them. She said she visited a middle school Tuesday morning where drinking water was only available in the basement.
“I know that we’re used to this, but this is not normal in most systems,” she said. “So we are going to have to make some tough choices.”
Elorza has publicly supported the state’s takeover of Providence schools, but he has advocated for a clearer timeline of when the city would take back control of the district and asked for community members to have a seat at the table when it comes to crafting the turnaround plan. The order addresses his key concerns, although decision-making power will be firmly in the hands of Infante-Green and her superintendent.
In a statement, Elorza said he remains committed “to engaging our families and centering their voices to ensure long-lasting change.”
“We have always known that providing our students the 21st century education they deserve cannot be done alone,” Elorza said. “The strong collaboration we have built with the state and local stakeholders will continue to be the driving force behind what we have envisioned for PPSD.”
Domingo Morel, a Providence native who now studies state takeovers of schools at Rutgers University, said it’s a good sign that state and city leaders are working together, but he warned that term limits prevent Governor Gina Raimondo and Elorza from running for reelection in 2022.
The next governor and mayor might not get along as well, he said. Newark, for example, was under state control during the administration of eight different governors, many of whom clashed with city leaders.
“I think they’ve been in agreement because of the current arrangement,” said Morel, who also served on the Johns Hopkins review team. “But what happens if the arrangement changes?”
Rhode Island law allows the state to “reconstitute” a failing school or district, but the kind of intervention it is planning in Providence is unprecedented.
The state currently oversees the finances of Central Falls schools, though a local board controls policymaking there. The state also took control of Providence’s Hope High School in the early 2000s.
In justifying the need for a takeover, Infante-Green’s order explains that Providence has seen “no measurable improvement in the educational outcomes” of its students after many years of budgetary and programmatic support from the state and federal government.
The order makes the case that the state has sought to progressively intervene in Providence in recent years while providing an additional $84 million in annual funding since 2011. Infante-Green noted that 34 of the district’s 41 schools are considered one- or two-star schools, the lowest classifications in the state’s five-star rating system.
“The problem of low performance is not limited to a subset of the district’s schools, as nearly all schools face significant performance issues,” the order states. “But the district has struggled to support them in making significant improvements.”