March 29, 2006

Proposed Rhode Island Legislation on Education

In his March 29 posting, Tom Coyne writes:

There is clear and convincing evidence that Rhode Island taxpayers donít get value for money when it comes to public education. There is no doubt that we spend more generously than most states. As a percentage of our per capita state income, Rhode Islandís per pupil spending is the second highest in the country. At 92%, the percentage of per pupil spending that goes to salaries and benefits in Rhode Island is the nation's highest. Our average teacher salary, as a percentage of its average private-sector worker's salary, is the highest in the country, and has been since at least 1990. And Rhode Island has the nationís second highest number of teachers per student.

But what do we get for our money? On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the only test taken by students in all fifty states), our children perform poorly, even when scores are adjusted for differences in poverty levels between states. Whether they are black, white or Hispanic their scores trail far behind number one ranked Massachusetts. If we do not take dramatic steps to improve this situation, we are condemning our children to declining standards of living in the future.

The good news is that there are bills pending before the General Assembly that could significantly improve public education in Rhode Island. The bad news is that there are pending bills that could make things even worse. Letís look at the good bills first.

The first step in improving public education is to spend taxpayer money more efficiently, to provide more funds for books, classroom materials, and performance bonuses for the best teachers. An important move in this direction is bipartisan legislation introduced by Reps. Malik and Singleton (H. 7730 and H. 7795) that would move school district employees into the state health insurance plan. Similarly, H. 6853A and S. 2531 (introduced by Rep. McNamara and Sen. Doyle) would allow for state-wide purchasing of non-health insurance items by school departments. Finally, H. 7841 and S. 2895 (Rep. Mumford and Sen. Bates) would put the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority in charge of all out-of-district school transportation. Since the potential cost savings increase geometrically with the size of the network being optimized, the benefits from this change should be substantial.

The second step in improving education is to more effectively spend the money produced by efficiency improvements. This is an important point to emphasize: improving public education in Rhode Island is not about spending more or less; it is about spending smarter.

A number of bills have been introduced that would help achieve this goal. H. 7385 (Story) and S. 2697 (Blais) adds science to the current math and English language arts statewide curriculum requirements. H. 6850 (Crowley) and S. 2196 (Gibbs) lifts the ban on charter schools. Yet to be introduced legislation by Reps. Almeida and Davey will propose a public school choice program. H. 7542 (Smith) establishes an alternative public school for the most disruptive students. A number of other bills would ban unfunded state mandates that impose additional costs on local communities. For example, H. 7570 (Ehrhardt) lets local school committees decide whether to use costly bus monitors. Perhaps most important, H. 7581 (Singleton) returns management rights to school committees and principals, including decisions over staffing and other issues. This implements the common sense idea that teachers unions should not be running our schools.

Unfortunately, other bills have been introduced that could make todayís bad public education situation even worse. Some would require the state to pay a larger share of the cost of educating students with disabilities. However, no bill has been introduced to implement the recommendations of the General Assemblyís own 2001 report ("Special Education in the Context of School Reform") which found that Rhode Island classifies too many children as "learning disabled." At 20.1%, we have a higher percentage of disabled students than any other state in the country Ė the national average is only 13.8%. Since it has been estimated that these students cost 1.9 times more than non-disabled students (in large part due to the higher union staffing requirements for teaching disabled students), only fear of the teachers unions explains the failure of the General Assembly to address this very expensive issue.

Other highly questionable bills include new unfunded state mandates to hire more speech pathologists (H. 7559, Smith), pay them $3,500 bonuses (H. 6830, San Bento), and give power over teacher certification to a union-controlled board (H. 7560, Smith). Another set of bills would give the teachers unions even more bargaining power. H. 7008 (Gemma) would require binding arbitration for both monetary and non-monetary issues if a teachers union and school committee could come to no agreement after a year of mediation. This might seem like a good idea, were it not for bills like H. 6732 (Moura) and S. 2633 (McCaffrey) which would limit an arbitratorís power to rule against the union position, and H. 7602 (Lally) that would make it even harder for town councils to win so-called "Caruolo lawsuits" brought when school committees take towns (and, indirectly, taxpayers) to court demanding more funds. Finally, H. 7858 (Moura) would prevent changes to union contracts when the state intervenes at a failing school. This would make it much more difficult to improve performance at places like Hope High School.

Last, but certainly not least, a number of bills have been introduced that would mandate higher state aid to local education, and proposed different formulas to divide it. The most egregious of these is H. 7765 (Slater, Diaz, Williams, Almeida and Dennigan). It would add language to the Rhode Island Constitution to make it much easier to launch so-called "adequacy" lawsuits, which attempt to use the courts to force substantial increases in spending on urban schools without any improvement in the way the money is usedĖ all paid for by higher taxes on the suburbs. Indeed, what is missing in this whole discussion is an honest picture of the real problem. Between 1996 and 2006, annual state General Revenue spending on social welfare programs increased by $553 million, from $681 million to $1.2 billion per year. With Rhode Islandís state income, sales, and excise taxes already among the highest in the country, this meant there was less money for state education aid to cities and towns. As a result, local property taxes had to increase by $579 million per year Ė more than $1,000 per year for every household in Rhode Island.

In sum, the General Assembly has an historic opportunity to pass legislation that would significantly improve public education in Rhode Island. Whether they will have the courage to do so over the objections of the teachers unions remains to be seen.