Rhode Island · School Talk

Pointing Fingers Is a Must

Rats. Asbestos. Lead paint. Brown water. Paint peeling off in sheets. Raw sewage. Fewer than 10 percent of 8th grade students able to read and do math at grade level. Ineffective and abusive teachers who can’t be terminated. Classroom work consistently far below grade level. Students watching Netflix and YouTube on their phones during class. Teachers who don’t feel safe. Students who don’t feel safe. Bullying. Fighting. Classrooms where zero instruction occurs. And desperate parents who feel shut out, silenced and demeaned.

Welcome to the Providence School system, a system that serves mostly low income Latino and African American students. A system that has been irrevocably broken for decades because elected officials have been unwilling or unable to summon the courage to do the hard and unpopular work of reforming it. It has never been their own kids stuck in rodent infested buildings so out of control that disruption is the constant and teaching the variable—there would have been urgency if the powerful people’s own children were compelled to attend these schools. And is it even accurate to call these buildings school? If there is no teaching, no learning, and almost no one reading on grade level, does it even meet the definition of the word “school”? I’d say no. It doesn’t. And while not every school in the district is in a state of crisis, the Johns Hopkins report indicates that the problems they outline are pervasive and reflective of the district as a whole.

A press conference with the Governor, the Providence Mayor, and the new Education Commissioner was scheduled at the statehouse less than twenty four hours after the release of the report. Let’s begin with what was not said. Neither Governor Gina Raimondo nor Mayor Jorge Elorza uttered the words, “I’m sorry.” Two words that would be easy to say for people more concerned about the city of Providence than about their future political aspirations. Saying “I’m sorry” in the wake of a report like this is a pretty low bar and neither the leader of our state nor of our capital city were able to clear it.

Moving on to what was said, it was evident right out of the gate that the talking points had been predictably well coordinated between the state house and Providence City Hall. Governor Raimondo and Mayor Elorza and followed a loose script that shifted the responsibility from themselves to ‘all of us’. Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green, new to Rhode Island, also warned against finger pointing and playing the blame game—and I get it. But I also reject it. I concede that finger pointing between city and state leaders or the executive and legislative branches is common and rarely productive. But the expectation that the public shouldn’t point fingers and are instead expected to “own” the problem because “we are all responsible?” No. Because it’s not true.

Systems are made up of people and people are responsible for this failure. So there will be—and should be— justified finger pointing by citizens, voters and taxpayers, not because it’s fun but because it is required if trust is ever to be rebuilt. Our public servants have, for generations, squandered taxpayer money and bought votes to get us to this ugly place. Per the report, patronage and personal favors have ruled the day at the Rhode Island statehouse—students and parents, have never had stitch of political power. The NEA and AFT quite literally own so many elected officials, that some reps and senators don’t even realize when they are regurgitating union talking points instead of thinking for themselves. Even our governor, who knew full well the harm caused by the collective bargaining agreement in Providence and elsewhere, chose to sign an evergreen contracts bill. Why? It was pay back to the NEA for their endorsement of her in the governor’s race.

I know, I know, the electorate is to blame because we keep electing and re-electing the people who have not only allowed but actually contributed to this educational catastrophe. And that’s true and fair to an extent. But it doesn’t justify shifting blame away from those in charge, from those who have a vote on Smith Hill, or from the person who wields the veto pen.

Mayor Jorge Elorza should straight up resign. Or be pushed out. Or be recalled. But he needs to go or get out of the way. The fact that he said with a straight face that he would give the Providence Schools a grade of ‘C’ is, on its own, immediately disqualifying. A C is average. There is nothing average about the findings in the Johns Hopkins report. And he has admitted publicly that everything in the report is accurate—on what planet do the contents of that horrifying report equal a ‘C’? His schools are an abysmal failure—the system was broken decades before he arrived and they remain that way now in his second term. He reiterated at the press conference that the Providence Schools have been his number one priority. He warned that “nipping at the margins” doesn’t bring about real change. Well, going on camera talking about girls’ menstrual cycles and free maxi pads or putting washing machines in schools are quintessential examples of nipping at the margins—they don’t bring about real change either. They may be nice—and even important—things provide for students but they do nothing to exterminate the rats in the buildings. They do nothing to ensure instruction actually occurs in classrooms. They do nothing to fix what is clearly a massive discipline problem. And they don’t teach kids to read.

In Elorza’s defense, he has pushed for what he calls a “transformational contract,” though he never defined what that would like. Every thinking person knows that the Providence Teachers’ Union is never going to agree to any changes described as “transformational.” I do give him credit for trying. But there comes a time when leaders need to be honest about their own capacity and Jorge Elorza is not capable of leading the charge—or being a co-pilot—to fix Providence’s schools. The brutal truth is that turning Providence around is going to be a herculean task for which very few people in the country, let alone the state, are qualified or well-suited. There is no shame in him, or anyone, acknowledging that.

It is hard to imagine any organization—public or private—where the CEO would not be fired or forced to resign after the release of a report like the one that just landed on Rhode Island like an atom bomb. If only nefarious conduct or embezzling public dollars (or jail!) can get an elected official to step down, we have allowed the bar to be set way too low. Change in city leadership is needed and the Providence mayor is the first one who needs to go.

Update: Since writing this I have learned that Mayor Jorge Elorza is off to Hawaii not even 48 hours after a horrifying report on his city’s schools that has left the city and the state reeling. His decision to follow through with his plans to travel to a conference this week is also disqualifying. I can barely wrap my head around the fact he did not cancel this trip. He doesn’t get it.

What do you think?

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