THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


We're Not Gonna Take It

Contesting the state takeover of the Providence Public School District

by Alina Kulman & Sara Van Horn

Illustration by Pia Mileaf-Patel

published September 13, 2019


In late June, the Providence Public School District was rocked by a devastating report that implicated everyone from teachers to governmental officials in the alarming state of the city’s public schools. Released by Johns Hopkins University, the report not only revealed startling realities of the Providence Public School District, but also quickly became a touchpoint for an urgent statewide conversation about who is, and who should be, responsible for the city’s public schooling. The report details the state of school facilities—including crumbling buildings, discolored tap water, and the smell of stale urine—as well as the phenomenon of teacher absenteeism, widespread physical violence, and a culture of low expectations. These disturbing descriptions provide context for an educational environment where, across grade levels, only 14 percent of students are proficient in English Language Arts and only 10 percent are proficient in math.

The report, however, provided little in the way of recommendations, leaving wide open the questions of who should take the much-needed remedial steps and how they should take them. Should the city or state government have control over the school system? And how should this authority be transferred? The report’s findings seemed to invite the possibility of a state takeover, a course of action quickly proposed and subsequently approved, which will transfer responsibility for the Providence Public School District (PPSD) from city to state government in early September. State takeovers, however, have often failed to improve educational outcomes and historically disempowered majority Black and Latinx communities.

The strong local and national reactions to this report—seemingly universal shock and alarm—belie how unsurprising these educational realities are for the teachers, students, and activists who work and study in Providence public schools. For Chanda Womack, the Founding Executive Director of Alliance of Rhode Island Southeast Asians for Education (ARISE), the report is a prime example of the ways that city government continues to dismiss student voices. “We have been telling the city that this is an issue,” Womack told the College Hill Independent in an exclusive interview. “Young people have been saying this. But you needed an academic stance to validate that yes, there is a problem.” The report—which cost $50,000—was paid for by the Partnership for Rhode Island, a nonprofit made up of the CEOs of major Rhode Island employers like Hasbro Inc., CVS Health, and Brown University. As Womack emphasized to the Independent, “We didn’t need a report to affirm what we’ve been saying and experiencing.”

 

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Yet the report, unlike past community feedback, has spurred the government into action. Early in August, Commissioner of Education Angélica Infante-Green submitted a proposal to the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education asking for a complete state takeover of the city’s schools. Formerly the Deputy Commissioner of Education in New York, Infante-Green was appointed Rhode Island’s Commissioner in late March, making her the first Latina and first woman of color to hold the position.

After her request was granted, Infante-Green assumed all the powers of the mayor, school board, and city council in an effort to prepare school facilities for the upcoming school year. She also appointed an interim superintendent, Frances Gallo, the former Central Falls superintendent. The permanent superintendent, who will also be selected and appointed by Infante-Green, will take over from Gallo in September.

The city’s decision to cede power to the state government ostensibly resulted from a series of eight community forums that took place in the emotional weeks after the report’s release. Located in public schools around the city, these forums were a joint collaboration between the mayor’s office and the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE). Normally sparsely attended, they drew the attendance of hundreds of Providence residents, many of whom voiced a strong desire to see the state assume control of the city’s public school district. Although Infante-Green claimed these forums were designed to incorporate the voices of students and parents directly affected by the school conditions, they did not necessarily amplify the voices of those community members. If the forums were meant to truly get the feedback of the community, Womack argues, each person at the microphone would have been allotted more than two minutes. For Womack, the forums were simply a means to showcase and validate the findings of the report. In her view, “this whole process has been extremely disempowering.”

Following the forums, RIDE released a 71-page proposal for the state takeover, outlining the major difficulties identified in the report and formally articulating the department’s plan. The proposal, which the city council is set to approve on September 13th, shifts the power structure of the school system: in addition to appointing a new superintendent, the proposal grants Commissioner Infante-Green control of “the budget, program, and personnel of PPSD and its schools.” Infante-Green immediately received substantial national positive press for her seemingly bold state action, including a feature in the Wall Street Journal that lauded her for coming to Rhode Island to “make change.”

 

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The bureaucratic efficiency promised by a state takeover is certainly appealing. Many parents are frustrated by a school system mired in disputes between parties—including the city government, state government, and the teachers’ union—who share authority and responsibility for the city’s schools. With decision-making power collected under one superintendent and one education commissioner, there may be less room for complacency, as the PPSD, the teachers’ union, RIDE, the city council, and the mayor’s office would no longer be able to blame each other for the school’s failings.

State takeovers of public school districts have historical precedent. In Rhode Island, the state’s authority to take control of Providence schools comes from the Crowley Act, which allows the state to intervene in failing public schools if those schools have not shown improvement after a period of three years, although it does not clearly outline the process for taking over entire districts.

But if the history of state takeovers across the country are any indication, these transfers of power are rarely smooth, and they often exacerbate racial inequality. In his book Takeover: Race, Education, and American Democracy, Domingo Morel, a political science professor at Rutgers University and a member of the Johns Hopkins review team, argues that state takeovers typically obscure their own political and racist motivations. Although state governments’ outward facing statements may reflect intentions to improve school performance, Morel believes that school takeovers are ultimately a political tool to take power away from communities of color. In a review of 1,000 school districts, Morel found that majority-Black districts are more likely to be taken over than majority-white districts. Additionally, state takeovers are more likely in districts with rising Black political empowerment, especially those with increasing numbers of Black elected officials. In practice, school takeovers often mean large and indiscriminate firings of teachers and principals, and fewer people of color representing their own communities on school boards.

With takeovers, Morel argues that government officials often want greater control over the distribution of state resources at the expense of communities of color: “Across the country, you have rural and suburban state legislators essentially resenting that these resources—that they perceive as their own—are going to districts like Providence,” Morel told the Independent.

However, the history of state takeovers is not monolithic. In his book, Morel cites the Rhode Island state takeover of Central Falls public schools in 1991, after a decade of fiscal and academic challenges. Although Central Falls public schools were 40 percent Latinx by 1990, the local school board was entirely white, which alienated community members from their schools. After the takeover, the state government fired the all-white elected school board, and appointed an entirely new board that included three Latinx members. Since that takeover nearly three decades ago, the school board has maintained substantial Latinx representation within a district with a majority-Latinx population.

Yet Morel emphasizes that successes like this are rare. He argues that the vast majority of takeovers disempower communities of color, and ultimately reveal a “flaw in the structure of our American democracy that is only familiar to poor communities of color.” Because of this dynamic, Morel, who is also a graduate of Central High School in Providence, opposes RIDE’s takeover of schools in Providence. “We have a really unhealthy disconnect between the schools and the communities. These connections just don’t exist,” Morel told the Independent. “I don’t see how the takeover addresses this.”

Additionally, state takeovers do not necessarily address the chronic underfunding that lies at the heart of the educational crisis. Commissioner Infante-Green has yet to announce an increase in funding for Providence public schools. Instead, her statements have emphasized the need to use current funding more efficiently. According to RIDE’s proposal, the state’s annual school aid to Providence has increased by $84 million since 2011. Despite this funding, RIDE argues that public schools continue to underperform and “systemic problems prevent the district from improving.”

According to Morel, the level of funding that students in Providence public schools receive is comparable to the state average. Equality, however, isn’t equity. Many of the educational needs specific to Providence—such as the high percentage of English Language Learners who need supplemental support—require, but do not receive, additional funds. State representative Rebecca Kislak also believes that Providence schools are underfunded. “I’m not convinced that we fund our schools adequately,” she told the Independent. “I think we’re going to need to have that conversation.” She doesn’t know, however, whether that conversation will happen this year or next at the state house.

    

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Community organizations in Providence spent the entire summer calling attention to the potential pitfalls of a state takeover at RIDE’s public forums. According to Chanda Womack of ARISE, members of her group, along with those in other community activist groups, “tried everything” to get their opinions heard by Infante-Green. “Nothing has worked,” Womack told the Independent. “Even though they have been telling the public that we need community input, there is no action to align with that supposed value.”

In response, ARISE and other activist organizations took to the legal system, and filed a motion against RIDE with the Rhode Island Center For Justice, a public interest law center. According to a press release published last Wednesday, the motion was filed on behalf of community organizations, parents, and students; it demands a “clear” takeover plan from RIDE that emphasizes both transparency and community engagement.

For Womack, the declaration of legal filing is simple and seeks to address the disconnect between the community and the school system: “We're basically saying that any plan that you come up with that does not center parents, students and community voices is not going to work.” Since RIDE’s takeover proposal gives Commissioner Infante-Green nearly unbridled power over the school system, including the power to appoint a turnaround superintendent for Providence schools, members of ARISE and other community organizations want to be at the table for those decisions and appointments. “We’re asking you basically to honor your word,” says Womack. “Honor what you’re saying by including us.”

Others in the Providence community have additional suggestions for making RIDE’s school reform more transparent. Representative Kislak suggests looking for alternative standards to evaluate the takeover’s success: “I know we’re going to be looking a lot at the [test] scores, and that’s totally valid,” she told the Independent. “But scores are not the only thing that matters.” Kislak proposes a community-based process to determine the metrics to track the takeover’s effects on school culture and performance. Debating these standards would bring much-needed accountability to the takeover process, along with providing an additional opportunity for community input.

Morel suggests an immediate increase in the number of school psychologists and community organizers, who can help students handle their mental health and external hardships before problems “bubble up” in the classroom. He also believes RIDE needs to invest in a pipeline to improve teacher diversity. “That’s a mid-term to long-term goal so that, as teachers age out, there is an increase of focus on teachers of color, primarily from Rhode Island,” Morel told the Independent.

 

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According to Morel, there is rightful concern over Providence public schools because the current conditions should be unacceptable. “But how do we create a long-term, sustainable, healthy public school system? You can’t do that without having the community be part of that.” If anything is clear amid the debates over the future of Providence public schools, it’s that students, teachers, and community organizers need to be central to the discussion.

While reposting a Twitter announcement by the Center for Justice, the Providence Student Union, an organization that works to build student power in Providence, perfectly articulated the concept: #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs.

 

ALINA KULMAN B’21 and SARA VAN HORN B’21 want Brown University to pay property taxes to the city of Providence.