Rhode Island Group Lobbies to Keep State Board, and Deborah Gist

By Sean Cavanagh — January 25, 2011 2 min read
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Deborah Gist has a fan in Jeb Bush. And Andres Alonso. And Eli Broad. And apparently, many, many others.

That much is clear from a campaign organized by a group called the Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now (RI-CAN), which has penned a letter asking the state’s governor to keep Gist, the state’s schools chief, in that job and keep the basic composition of the state’s board of education.

The group recruited about 50 signatories to its cause, including the aforementioned former Florida governor, Baltimore schools CEO, and philanthropist.

The letter to Rhode Island’s new governor, Lincoln Chafee, argues that Gist and current members of the state’s board of regents have been instrumental in making positive changes in schools, which were key to the state winning a $75 million grant in the federal Race to the Top competition. RI-CAN doesn’t want the state to back away from the goals laid out in the plan, and it believes keeping Gist and the board around is a good way to ensure that, explained the group’s executive director, Maryellen Butke.

“The current team has proved to be a winning one, scoring substantial victories on behalf of Rhode Island schoolchildren,” the letter to Chafee reads. “But the battle is far from over. The reforms initiated over the past year are an important start ... but they must continue to have real impact.”

The Rhode Island group is not necessarily arguing that all the members of the current board of education—known in as the board of regents—stay in place, Butke told me. But they’re hoping that any new ones Chafee moves to appoint are just as as committed to the goals laid out in the state’s Race to the Top plan.

Butke said Gist neither asked for the letter nor had any input in putting it together. Other names signing it include New Jersey’s acting schools chief, Christopher Cerf; state senator Mike Johnston of Colorado, architect of a major bill to change teacher tenure and evaluation last year; former Arizona state schools chief Lisa Graham Keegan; former New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein; and Joe Williams of Democrats for Education Reform.

Gist has won praise in some quarters for her efforts to raise teacher qualifications in her state, among other policies. She’s also made some controversial calls, like backing the firing of teachers at Central Falls High School, a persistently low-performing school, as was allowed by federal law. A deal was later reached to allow the teachers to come back, though whether the school will come around academically remains to be seen.

No word yet on Chafee’s response to the letter.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.