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School & District Management

Rhode Island Governor Drives Agenda, Raising Questions About Sustainability

By Scott J. Cech — May 30, 2008 11 min read
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If you had glanced through the narrow, wired-glass window of Rhode Island College professor Moira E. Collins’ Writing 150 classroom here on a cold morning in March, the tableau would have looked utterly routine: college-age students at desks circled seminar-style around their professor.

Had you just glanced, however, you would have missed one of the most tangible products so far of this state’s 3-year-old P-16 council.

Inside, the two dozen high school seniors handing Collins drafts-in-progress of their cultural-anthropology research papers constituted the inaugural class of Pathways to College. The dual-enrollment program represents Rhode Island’s first state-directed effort specifically aimed at helping students at risk of academic failure navigate their way to college.

The 9-month-old, one-school pilot program shows early signs of success. Even though all Pathways students come from a high school that’s a “dropout factory,” as defined by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and all qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, their grades in college-level coursework hovered around A-minus and B-plus, and each was expected to graduate with 15 college credits.

“We’re doing it; it’s actually happening,” says Jessica L. Geier, the state’s dual-enrollment coordinator. “This is boots on the ground.”

That Rhode Island’s P-16 council can point to such palpable progress sets it apart from other states’ councils, some of which don’t seem to exist outside of an organization chart. The difference here isn’t hard to trace, say the council’s members: Look over at who chairs each council meeting, and you’ll find Gov. Donald L. Carcieri.

And yet, no money can be found to replicate Pathways in other troubled schools. The pilot itself may not even last beyond December, when its grant runs out.

And even if it manages to last the next few years, the program’s survival—and even the council’s own existence, say some council members—may be in jeopardy after January 2011, when the term-limited governor’s second term ends.

“As long as he’s willing to give this as much leadership as he does, it’s got energy and it’s got standing. But I can’t imagine [what will happen to it] the day he’s not governor,” says Peter J. McWalters, Rhode Island’s outgoing K-12 schools chief and a member of the council.

With no formal budget or staff or substantive participation from the legislature, says McWalters, the council could dissolve “with one blink.”

Call it paradoxical or political, but the governor—the very man who created and drives the state’s P-16 council—may also end up being its greatest vulnerability.

Lack of Coordination

As Carcieri is wont to point out, despite Rhode Island’s status as the nation’s geographically smallest state, it has 36 separate districts to educate its 148,000 public school students.

Rhode Island P-16 Council

Year Established: 2005
Number of Members: 10
Governor Regularly Chairs Matters: Yes
Voluntary Convening or Permanent: Permanent (Executive Order)
Supported by at Least 0.5 Full-time Equivalent Staff-Position: No

SOURCE: ECS Database on P-16 and P-20 Councils

Cooperation between K-12 schools and colleges is equally atomized. A recent survey of the state’s 11 public and private colleges and universities found more than 250 dual-enrollment partnerships of some kind in place.

But, district to district, and even within the top state education offices, as Carcieri says, no one knew until the survey results came out this past March who was doing what, or how effectively.

Such was the forest of education policy splinters that the governor—a former high school math teacher whose father and wife also taught—inherited when he took office in 2003 with a pledge to improve education.

“What I found was that they’re not talking to one another, for starters,” says Carcieri, recalling the dearth of communication he saw between schools and universities, but also among state and business leaders on the subject of education.

That lack of coordination, the governor argues, has contributed to the state’s high remediation rates. Nearly 60 percent of incoming Community College of Rhode Island students need at least one remedial class, he says, and the state’s other two public institutions—Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island—also have higher remediation rates than they’d like.

“That’s hugely inefficient,” Carcieri says. “If you’ve got a system in higher ed that’s having to remediate the deficiencies back here in K-12, well, guess what: You’re laying an extra cost onto the higher ed system.”

Cost is no small consideration in a state trying to close a projected $430 million gap in its $7 billion fiscal 2009 budget. Rhode Island’s per-pupil spending—almost $12,000 a year—is the ninth-highest in the nation, the governor says, owing partly, he contends, to the profusion of district-level bureaucracy.

If you’ve got a system in higher ed that’s having to remediate the deficiencies back here in K-12, well, guess what: You’re laying an extra cost onto the higher ed system."

And yet, student achievement lags behind that of other states. Both math and reading scores on the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress among 4th and 8th grade Rhode Islanders were below the average percentage of students nationally who scored at the “proficient” level or above.

And the state’s public high school graduation rate actually fell 2.4 percentage points, to 71.1 percent, from 2001 to 2005, while the national average rose 2.6 percentage points, to 70.6 percent, according to a new analysis by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.

Rhode Island’s disappointing graduation rate portends a mismatch between academic preparation and employer expectations.

According to the governor’s office, the state has lost more than 93,000 manufacturing jobs requiring a high school diploma or less in the past 20 years. And the 89,000 jobs created since then typically demand at least some college education, the office says.

Chairing the Meetings

For those reasons and others, Carcieri issued an executive order in 2005 calling for “a seamless, coherent state system of education,” and creating a P-16 council to foster it.

“I chair it, which was a conscious decision,” he says, “because obviously I want to drive the agenda.”

Like other council members, Carcieri couches most of the panel’s accomplishments so far in terms of interorganizational communication—a significant achievement in itself, the governor argues.

On a scale of 1 to 10, “I’d give [the council] a 7 or 8, in terms of pulling people together, getting people on the same … sheet of music,” he says.

The council’s meetings, which cover a different piece of the P-16 continuum each time, tend to air issues that are subsequently worked on within and among each member’s department or sphere of influence, according to members.

For example, the council’s March meeting on higher education featured a commissioned report on the state’s scattered dual-enrollment programs, which sparked discussions about the need to stoke communication among Rhode Island’s private universities, its public colleges, and its community colleges.

“[We] … say, ‘OK, these are the kinds of issues that we’re needing to deal with here,’ and first of all thrash that around,” says Carcieri about the way the meetings tend to go. “And then, secondly, we say, ‘OK, yes, then who’s going to do what piece?’ ”

Of the council itself, the governor says, “For me, it was more of a—how would I say it—a managerial technique to get everybody together.”

Sharon Osborne, a special assistant to McWalters, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, says she thinks the technique is effective.

“You can be the governor and you can say ‘do it’ a lot, and people can just drift along and not really do it,” she says. “But I’ve watched this group for two years, and am absolutely amazed at the dedication. … He really has managed to move this table so that there’s buy-in.”

While few would dispute the state’s need for a more coherent and cost-effective education continuum, some question whether the P-16 council is built to last, given that it conspicuously excludes the legislature.

“To the extent that [the council] is identified simply with a particular governor or a particular administration,” says Robert G. Flanders Jr., the Carcieri-appointed chairman of the state’s board of regents for elementary and secondary education and a member of the P-16 council, “it risks not being continued beyond that administration.”

Carcieri, who in 2006 won the second of his two allowable consecutive terms by a very thin margin, is a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, facing a lopsidedly Democratic legislature.

By all accounts, that political equation doesn’t show up on the surface of the P-16 council’s meetings, which occur quarterly. And that’s in part because the governor hasn’t yet tried to invite legislators to take part.

“[Not] unless he has the wrong phone number for me,” quips state Rep. Joseph M. McNamara, the Democrat who chairs the House committee on health, education, and welfare. He also is a deputy majority leader, with a Statehouse office a couple of floors below the governor’s.

Balance of Powers?

The reasons for the absence of legislators on the council differ, depending on who’s doing the explaining.

“The difficulty is, we don’t have right now a strong education committee in any of those chambers, and none of the legislators has been really engaged in this issue,” Carcieri maintains.

And he cites a state constitutional amendment that went into effect in 2005 and is known here as the “separation-of-powers amendment.” The measure, which the governor backed, prohibits legislators from being “appointed to any state office, board, commission, or other state or quasi-public entity exercising executive power under the laws of this state.”

Some question whether the P-16 council is built to last, given that it conspicuously excludes the legislature.

Carcieri says he decided to exclude legislators from the council “in an abundance of caution” with regard to that amendment.

But that caution seems unnecessary, says Flanders, a former state supreme court justice: “Separation of powers … wouldn’t apply to an advisory group like this.”

McNamara, who also is the principal of the Alternative Learning Program—a small high school in Pawtucket, R.I., that educates students who might not otherwise attend school—says he’s one legislator who is most definitely interested in P-16 issues, which span preschool through four years of college.

“We don’t have to be voting members if he sees a perceived conflict of interest with separation of powers—that wouldn’t be necessary to include us,” he says of council membership.

In the absence of an invitation to become nonvoting members, McNamara adds, legislators will make their priorities known in other ways.

McNamara was joined by state Sen. Hanna M. Gallo, the vice chair of the Senate education committee, in noting that lawmakers can send such messages through the power of the purse.

“Without the funding, it doesn’t happen,” says Gallo, who is also a speech-language pathologist at Woodridge Elementary School in Cranston, R.I. “You can’t just expect [programs] to be there like magic.”

In June 2007, the legislature rejected Carcieri’s proposed 3 percent K-12 budget increase for the 2008 fiscal year, overriding his veto, and froze state aid to schools instead.

Meanwhile, the money for replicating or even just maintaining programs such as Pathways to College has to be found elsewhere. A one-year grant from the Quincy, Mass.-based Nellie Mae Foundation that has underwritten that program expires this year.

“We’re at the point now where I have been with the governor when he’s asked some major funders, ‘Why aren’t we getting anything?’ ” says McWalters, “and they basically say, ‘Because you don’t have public-policy agreement—you’re at a complete standoff with your legislative leadership.’ ”

McWalters adds: “It’s more and more clear that the [P-16 council] is significantly hampered by not having legislative representation at the table.”

As it stands, the council has no line item in the state budget. It gets by with a thin stream of money from the governor’s office and occasional outside grants.

“I think if it’s going to be sustainable, it needs to find its way into legislation,” says Jack R. Warner, the state commissioner of higher education.

Without legislators feeling as though they’re part of the process, say officials on and off the council, programs such as Pathways are vulnerable.

“It’s just an incredible amount of support that kids need in order to continue in these college-level courses,” Paula Dominguez, the senior education policy adviser for the state House of Representatives, says about the program. While she praises its intent, she adds, “I’ve got to be a bottom-line person here. I think of $140,000 for 23 kids, and I think, ‘ka-ching.’ ”

Turnover at the Top

Carcieri recognizes that if he wants to ensure that the next governor will at least minimally continue the work of the P-16 council as it now exists, he’ll have to work with the legislature to try to write the council into law.

As it stands, the council has no line item in the state budget. It gets by with a thin stream of money from the governor’s office and occasional outside grants.

The idea of having legislators holding nonvoting seats on the council, he says, is “one of the things we need to look at.”

“It’s tricky,” Carcieri says. “You don’t want to politicize [the council], and yet on the other hand, the reality is that sometimes we need to get some legislation passed.”

The reality, though, is that even legislation, should it somehow pass the Democratic-dominated legislature, won’t guarantee that Carcieri’s successor will continue his practice of chairing the council’s meetings, let alone commit as much personal attention to P-16 issues as this governor has.

Then again, the state’s P-16 landscape might look a lot different by the time Carcieri leaves office anyway.

In March of this year, the state Senate’s finance committee chairman, a Democrat, announced plans to file legislation to kill off both the Office of Higher Education and the board of governors for higher education, to save money.

Then, in April, McWalters announced he would step down in early 2009 after more than 17 years as K-12 commissioner, removing one of the council’s fonts of institutional knowledge.

McWalters downplayed his departure’s significance, saying the council’s continued existence would hinge more on the next governor.

“The work that Jack and I are doing together is in some ways independent of the PK-16 council,” he says of Warner, the higher education commissioner, with whom he has worked closely for the past six years.

“I think the collaboration [between precollegiate and postsecondary institutions] will continue, even if the council does not.”

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