No Choice: Chafee Pushes Back Against Charters in Rhode Island

by by Simon van Zuylen-Wood

Angus Davis is a handsome local boy who skipped college and became a Silicon Valley prodigy when he was 18. That was in 1997, when becoming Netscape’s youngest-ever employee was a huge deal. Ten years later, he had a fortune, a reputation as a fervent charter-school advocate, and a seat upon the Rhode Island Board of Regents, the state’s engine for education policy. In 2008 he orchestrated legislation that overturned a ban on new charter schools. In 2009 he helped found the first “Mayoral Academy,” Blackstone Valley Prep in Cumberland, a charter school which operates under the director of several area mayors. Last year, his Board of Regents worked with Education Commissioner Deborah Gist—his recruit—to win a $75 million grant in the federal Race to the Top contest, which includes provisions for more charter schools. Citing the harmful influence of “brain-dead, asinine” policies which blindly protect unions and senior faculty, Davis said in 2007, “The public education system is absolutely screwing low-income kids of color.”

Two days before the November gubernatorial election, Davis spent $10,545 of his own money on a direct-mail campaign supporting the losing candidate, Democrat Frank Caprio. Less than a month after he was sworn in, Governor Lincoln Chafee sacked Davis along with two other board members sympathetic to school choice. Chafee’s replacement candidates, unlike Davis, have the full support of local teachers’ unions. This isn’t a case of “an eye for an eye,” it’s “you scratch my back, I scratch yours.”

A Taste of Victory

Without the support of teachers' unions, Chafee, who eked out only 36 percent of the vote, likely would have lost the election. This fall, empowered by the Citizen’s United v. FEC Supreme Court decision, the National Education Association of Rhode Island (NEARI) and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals (RIFTHP)—the state’s two major teachers’ unions—spent $183,000 on pro-Chafee advertisements. Local teachers unions’ Political Action Committees gave more than $11,000 directly to Chafee’s campaign, and individual teachers and administrators across the state contributed more than $4,000 of their own money. No other set of interest groups spent close to that much for Chafee—or any of the other gubernatorial candidates.

In return, unions are relying upon Chafee to slow the pace of Gist’s plans for school choice expansion. Gist has stood at odds with big labor since last year, when she drafted a proposal that got all 72 Central Falls School District teachers fired, then re-hired under harsher terms of contract. Though labor representatives have been cagey over the reasoning behind their distaste for Gist (and would not comment for this article), there’s little doubt it comes down to the battle over Gist’s belief in school choice, which represents the latest, greatest threat to the collective strength of teachers unions. As (non-unionized) charter schools grow, unions have fewer bargaining chips to lobby for a preferred contractual terms and funding for their school districts. Gist has stated that the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) will use the Race to the Top funds in addition to another $2 million federal charter school grant, to expand the number of charters from 15 to 35 over the next few years.

So far, the teachers’ unions have gotten their way. On January 31st, Chafee asked US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for “flexibility” on the portion of the Race to the Top grant which funds charter schools and requested a “thoughtful pause” on the current direction of public school reform. Some speculate that Chafee’s talks with Duncan may jeopardize the entire grant, which is not yet in Rhode Island’s possession and awaits final confirmation based on RIDE’s allocation proposal. And Chafee’s new-look Board of Regents, which he named on January 2nd, (and awaits confirmation from the State Senate) has full control over whether new charters are granted or not. Regents board members have three year terms. Eight of the nine members’ terms were up this year. The three ousted were pro-Gist. Two of the four new members have strong union ties. And among the five who will stay on is Colleen Callahan, Professional Issues Director for the RIFTHP. One appointment remains to be made.

Among the board’s new members are former State Assemblyman George Caruolo, who has echoed Chafee’s ambivalence over the Race to the Top grant (only a fraction of which deals with charter school funding) and Carolina Bernal from the Institute of Labor Studies, whose president is a former official for the National Education Association—along with the American Federation of Teachers, the largest teachers’ union in the country.

Central Falls superintendent Fran Gallo, who pulled the trigger on the infamous fire/re-hire plan for her low-performing district, isn’t optimistic about the immediate future of public school reform. The Board of Regents expurgation, Gallo says, is “a clear indication that the education reform effort…now has weighted brakes on it.”

“Anybody who has stood their ground and put children first—instead of the union agenda of adult comfort—was definitely targeted for replacement,” Gallo says.

Replaced alongside Angus Davis were former State Supreme Court Judge Robert Flanders Jr., a Gist supporter, and Anna Caro-Morales, the president of the Central Falls School Board, and a leading figure in the nascent education reform group Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now (RI-CAN).  On January 25th, RI-CAN director Maryellen Butke wrote an open letter urging Chafee to keep Gist in power and the Board of Regents intact. In spite of the signatures of heavy-hitting school choice advocates Joel Klein and Jeb Bush, Chafee shuffled the board, and some speculate that Gist will soon be gone too.

Reform Redux

If Gist is ousted, anyone familiar with the entrenched battles between unions and charter-school advocates in poor urban areas won’t be surprised at the outcome. It would likely provide an eerily similar image to the turn of events this September in Washington, D.C., when Mayor Adrian Fenty was defeated largely at the hands of the teachers’ unions, which poured money into the campaign of Vincent Gray, his challenger in the Democratic primary.

A few months later, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, one of the stars of Davis Guggenheim’s celebrated documentary Waiting for Superman offered her resignation. In her three-year tenure, Rhee fired hundreds of under-performing teachers and closed down under-enrolled schools to free up funding for arts programs and charter schools. Rhee resigned because she felt the new mayor’s stance on public education would make it impossible maintain the trajectory of her reforms. Chafee’s Regents Board could play the same role.

“You wonder at what point Gist turns around and says is this worth it,” says Jim Sturgios, the director of the Boston-based education research/advocacy firm Pioneer, and education blogger for the Boston Globe. Chafee’s appointments are “a pretty black and white issue,” Sturgios says. “I do have documents showing that [the appointments] are precisely what the unions wanted.” Not that one needs much help reading between the lines.

Why Unions Oppose Charters

On some level, the teachers’ unions trepidation about Gist and her allies is understandable. Money that could be going to public school districts will go toward charters instead. And if teacher evaluations are linked to test scores, one of Gist’s proposals, equally competent teachers from poorer and richer districts will not be judged fairly—the 2010 statewide science results (NECAP) revealed that students in economically disadvantaged districts performed 20-35% worse than their wealthier peers.

But Gist and her allies argue that one of the stated aims of the school choice movement when it emerged in the early 1990s was not just to provide an independently-run, publicly-funded alternative to (bad) public schools, but to facilitate the exchange of ideas between public schools and charters.

“I don’t understand the hostility,” Gallo says. “We have partnerships with our charters. We partner with the Learning Community Charter (in Central Falls)—they assist us with professional development at the early childhood level. With their assistance, we are improving.”

If the superintendent of a public school district voices support for an ostensible rival, why are unions against it? Their dissent is puzzling in light of the fact that three of Rhode Island’s 15 charter schools are fully unionized.

“If we really looked at it," Gallo said, "We would be on the same page—we would want to be making decisions based on what’s good for children.”

Three weeks ago, Central Falls School District was invited by Arne Duncan to a nationwide conference in Denver during which school management and labor would develop strategies for better collaborating. Gallo and Central Falls School Board President Anna Cano-Morales agreed, but needed Central Falls Teachers’ Association President Jane Sessums’ to okay the trip. Sessums did not, saying she didn’t feel Gist’s administration would actually be willing to work together. Sessums, who was publicly backed by American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten and RIFTHP President Frank Flynn, said her attendance “would be disingenuous.”

“It's a disappointment to not get to that next level of technical assistance...not to be able to go. Any time a community has worked so hard, to turn their image around,” said Cano-Morales, also an outgoing Regents board member. “Teachers have been under so much stress, giving it their all."

What Chafee's Saying

Governor Lincoln Chafee hasn’t indicated that union pressure factored into his Regents selections and his trepidation about Race to the Top. Instead, he’s cited the recent work of school choice advocate turned school choice naysayer Diane Ravitch, a prominent education historian. Ravitch’s latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education points out that many charter schools perform far worse than their neighborhood public schools.

Ravitch also argues that placing so much emphasis on standardized test proficiency pressures teachers to "teach to the test,"o or mold their curricula to inflate test scores, thereby ignoring bread and butter subjects like history, literature, geography and civics.

This too has been a hallmark of Gist’s platform. In addition to her proposal to link state teacher evaluations and test scores, Gist has threatened to cut off funding for charters that test worse than comparable district public schools.

Sturgios notes that Gist’s commitment to reforming—not just chartering—alternative public schools distinguished Rhode Island’s Race to the Top proposal.

Its not just a proposal that says charters are the answer,” Sturgios says. “It’s a full, comprehensive plan that she put together, that frankly [stands] head and shoulders above many,” including Massachusetts'."

Ousted Regents Board member Bob Flanders said that although plans for charter schools constituted only one of many provisions in the state’s Race to the Top application—the main ones being new state-wide common course plans, better teacher evaluations, and technological innovations like ‘virtual classrooms’—its hot-button topicality was a leading factor in securing the grant.

“It provided not only a promise of a lot of money to do this work, but it proved to be a tremendous unifying factor in bringing together disparate stakeholders toward the goal of reforming education for the benefit of student achievement.”

A House Divided

The local education community has been effectively split in two, and the traditional Democratic stranglehold on union support has been challenged by progressive reform groups like RI-CAN and Democrats for Education Reform. But their effect in Rhode Island has done little so far. Though Chafee ran as an Independent, his platform was old-school Democratic and netted him the support of most of the state’s public employee unions. One look at the campaign contributions going to the overwhelmingly Democratic General Assembly also reveals the union stranglehold on state politics.

The next debate between the RI-CAN Democrats and the union Democrats may hinge on students’ recent performance in the NECAP science exams, standardized tests administered for 4th graders, 8th graders, and 11th graders.

So far, the results—released last week—reflect an existing geographical dichotomy. The best scores have always come from districts like Barrington and East Greenwich and the worst from Providence and Pawtucket. Of all 4th graders this year, the second and third best scores of the 169 Rhode Island public schools went to two suburban charter schools, Kingston Hill Academy and the Compass School. Both schools’ students tested around 90 percent proficiency, an improvement of 40 percent over last year. (The median proficiency level in Rhode Island was 44 percent.) Inner-city charters Times2 Academy and Highlander Charter saw their 4th graders test at 13.7 percent and 8.3 percent, both about 9 percent worse than they did last year. Despite some miserable scores from inner-city schools, state charters did out-perform public schools on average.

But it’s likely that the new union-friendly Board of Regents will cite precisely the 'business as usual' statistics above if they decide not to approve the slew of new charters and Mayoral Academies that will be applying this year.

In Central Falls, NECAP scores improved for all students, and were significantly better than most Providence public schools, despite a high number of teacher absences. Flanders was recently appointed Receiver for Central Falls, where he’ll function as a mayor--the state judged the elected mayor incompetent, and ousted him last year, in part because of the failures of the public schools.

Flanders says he’s committed to an approach to school reform that encourages “best practice.” In other words, the better-managed charter schools will help out the under-performing public schools. A rising tide will lift all boats, he says, in the trickle-down rhetoric that justifiably raises eyebrows on the left. And critics of Flanders and school choice will point out that "best practice" is just that--right-wing rhetoric. Charter school expansion, they argue, is just a way of pushing out schools that cost the government more. Charter schools, though public, usually receive considerable outside funding from business and philanthropy. And since most of them aren't unionized and cannot collectively bargain, they're perceived as a less of a potential drain on state resources.

But whether charter schools help or hurt public schools, Flanders is right that in Rhode Island, the status quo is untenable.

“It’s insane to not do anything—where we keep turning out people that are behind the eight ball, who face a life of economic despondency—as a result of very little education that they can use in life,” Flanders says. “These are the people who end up on the social dependency lists—if not in jail or the Training School—so the rest of us pay through the nose, because of the failures of the education system.”

That’s hardly a vote of confidence for the existing public school system. If Flanders hopes to enact any change at all for the troubled city, he must work with union leadership. Ideally, the state can one day have the best of both worlds—unionized charter schools—something the GreenDot network in Los Angeles has tried with great success. But if GreenDot or anything like it is coming to Rhode Island, it’ll have to go through the new Board of Regents first.

As Cumberland Mayor and Blackstone Prep Mayoral Academy co-founder Dan McKee says of teachers' unions, “If you could have the exclusive right to monopolize any particular service, you’re reluctant to give up any of that."