October 18, 2008

Blocking Education Reform

Justin Katz

Putting aside the pun in this post's title (on the grounds that I couldn't resist it), Moderate Party Chairman Ken Block's prescription for education reform in Rhode Island offers some worthy suggestions:

  • Provide life skills courses to non-college-tracked children. ...
  • Let uncertified professionals who are content experts teach in our schools. ...
  • Ban the practice of “bumping” in our school systems. ...
  • Convert day-care expenditures for low-income households into pre-school aid for these same households. ...
  • Provide incentives to the best teachers to teach in the toughest schools.
  • Apply lessons learned from our charter schools to our education system, and allow the development of more of these very successful schools, which are leading in education innovation.
  • Evaluate all teachers and administrators annually and provide incentive pay for the top performers, while providing mentoring, training and a financial disincentive to the worst performers. ...
  • Publish a model teacher’s contract created at the state level and make state aid to local school districts contingent on how closely the locally negotiated teacher’s contract adheres to the model’s guidelines. ...

The problem — perhaps resulting from the aspiration to appear "moderate" — is that Block strives to undermine the villain without naming it. In other words, he seeks to snatch some of the unions' most prized assets without open assertion that the unions are at the core of Rhode Island's educational (and financial) problems. Running forth with such a proposition is likely to have two results:

  1. It will detract from more explicit attempts to strike at the underlying issue, as unionists leverage Block's "moderation" to discredit and distract from stronger initiatives.
  2. It leaves open a familiar maneuver whereby the powerful players lasso and spin around attempts at unleashing reform, as they take the opportunity to expand their membership (with those "uncertified professionals" and converted day-care workers) and manipulate statewide model contracts and funding formulas to their own benefit, while allowing bans against bumping and institution of merit pay to slip from the agenda.

Ending the unions' monopoly on public education must be the first step of any plan to improve our schools, which is an end that a voucher system would achieve.

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The problem? That's the strength of Block's plan. It has a much better chance of accomplishing its goal than name-calling and overheated rhetoric.

Posted by: rhody at October 18, 2008 9:20 PM

My argument is that it creates the illusion of being more likely to institute but, in the practical operation of Rhode Island governance, is less so. The unions aren't going to fail to notice that Block's plan undermines several of their key selling points for members.

Posted by: Justin Katz at October 18, 2008 9:27 PM

I think Rhody has a great point. If you reject partial and incremental solutions because they don't go all the way to your goal, or (especially) because they don't explicitly demonize the other side in the way you would like, you reduce your chances of getting anywhere at all.

If you insist that the starting point is 'naming the villain" you should not be surprised if "the villain" refuses to talk to you and reasonable people in the middle, who might otherwise be at least somewhat sympathetic, turn away from you.

Posted by: Thomas Schmeling at October 18, 2008 9:52 PM

Well, that's the inclination that RI's power brokers have so effectively manipulated these many years. Nobody wants to offend, so proposals with teeth are diverted into negating compromise and dilatory "study groups."

I've no expectation that the villain will consent to talking about serious reform, at least until those (quote/unquote) reasonable people begin to understand the bottom line. That is, the harm of unionization. (Although I'd insist that "the villain" is a principle, not a person or group of people; that's why I used "it.")

Of course, this very discussion is indicative of the reason that the power brokers have Rhode Island in a check that's rapidly moving toward mate.

Posted by: Justin Katz at October 18, 2008 10:05 PM

>>If you insist that the starting point is 'naming the villain" you should not be surprised if "the villain" refuses to talk to you and reasonable people in the middle, who might otherwise be at least somewhat sympathetic, turn away from you.

That assumes the possibility of good faith and/or reasonableness on the part of the "villain."

The record of the teachers unions, in Rhode Island and nationally, is that they are single-minded and relentless.

Such organizations only bend to superior force, not compromise.

To realize the folly of trying to meet them in the middle, one need only try to imagine the NEA actually putting the interests of students first; or promoting high-level professionalism and competence and performance among all teachers (which among other things would the elimination of tenure and seniority). Simply inconceivable.

Posted by: Tom W at October 19, 2008 12:45 AM

Students who attend charter schools should be chosen by lot. In that manner, the students would more accurately reflect the general population of the state. Then we might have a legitimate idea of how they compare with the public schools. As it stands now, charter schools basically cherry pick attendees and any student with special education requirements or who requires constant discipline is dismissed from the charter school and returned to the public school system.

Posted by: OldTimeLefty at October 20, 2008 12:16 PM


All of my information, which came from conversations with members of the board of regents as well as directors of some of the charter schools contradicts your statements.

The 3 charter schools whose directors I talked with all choose their students via lottery.

The issue of special needs kids being shipped out did not come up in my interviews, but I will follow up on that ASAP.

Can you point me to any documented cases of this happening?

Posted by: Ken Block at October 20, 2008 3:32 PM
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