September 29th, 2009, will mark the first anniversary of the largest single-day drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The ensuing year has been tempestuous: the shuttering and fire-sale of companies that composed the backbone of the U.S. financial system, partial nationalizations of former icons of American business and the largest economic stimulus package ever.
The economic crisis may be devastating, but it also provides us an opportunity to reevaluate some of our decisions and change the way we operate at Brown, in Providence, as a state and as a nation. In the next year, Rhode Island will have to execute some tricky contortions to avoid a ballooning budget deficit. The actions we take now are critical to restoring confidence, jobs and a balanced budget. Brown students and professors, like all Rhode Island residents, have a unique opportunity to affect public policy, if we choose to get involved.
It is time we asked ourselves some deeper questions: why do Providence and the state of Rhode Island turn to Brown for funds when their budgets fall short? Why are corporate, income and property taxes not enough to cover expenditures?
Rhode Island is a beautiful state and has many natural assets. We have one of the only two deep-water ports in New England, lots of beautiful coast and are conveniently situated between Boston and New York. The state has an abundance of excellent universities.
But why does Rhode Island have the third-highest unemployment rate in the nation? Why do most Brown students flee the area immediately upon graduation?
A significant part of the problem is the shortage of real job opportunities and the lack of critical services to retain intellectual capital workers. It seems clear that Rhode Island and Providence need to work overtime to attract new businesses and retain the “intelligentsia” that are too often only transient interlopers.
Business startups cluster around universities like Stanford and MIT; our universities, and the city, should work to make Providence competitive with Palo Alto and Cambridge. Only by attracting — and retaining — businesses and knowledgable workers can we fix the budget deficit and secure a stable and robust economy in the future.
How? First, taxes are too high. In a ranking of business-friendly tax codes by the Tax Foundation, Rhode Island came in 44th. Because our state is small enough to spit across, businesses can easily relocate to just outside our borders. Lowering taxes may encourage more businesses to move to Rhode Island, which would provide jobs, widen the tax base and increase the state’s revenues.
But lowering taxes alone would not solve the problem. Businesses avoid Rhode Island because of the poor quality of public education. Large businesses cannot afford to send every middle manager’s kids to The $25,000-a-year Wheeler School. Providence public schools are not a viable alternative. Of the 1500 best public high schools in the country, as ranked by Newsweek, only Classical, in Providence, makes the cut at No. 1436. Montana, which has about the same population as and a much lower GDP per capita than Rhode Island, has two schools in the 600s. The rest of our schools fall much further behind, especially in Providence. The Rhode Island education system has failed. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce State-by-State Educational Effectiveness score card gives Rhode Island failing grades, D or F, in seven of nine categories. We receive the only grade of F in “Flexibility in Management and Policy.” The only passing grades we receive are for “Truth in Advertising about Student Proficiency” and “Data Quality.” At least we know that we are failing our students.
Gov. Donald Carcieri ’65 has proposed eliminating the 3 percent mandatory minimum increases to Rhode Island teachers’ pensions and instead making cost of living adjustments based on the Consumer Price Index. Rhode Island teachers are furious. But, we must ask, why are we paying so much for such poor performance?
Currently, Rhode Island has very strict requirements on teaching certification and training that shrinks the potential pool of teachers. We should consider loosening some of these requirements, creating a Teach for Rhode Island program that encourages Brown and Johnson and Wales grads to stay and teach for a few years and pay teachers based on a combination of performance and tenure.
Lower taxes and higher quality education will bring more companies to Providence, help solve our unemployment problem and put us on the right track toward long-term growth. We have the natural resources, geographical positioning and intellectual capital to become a hub for biotech and diversified intellectual capital industries. Or we could continue with tax and educational policies that drive businesses away, let our schools decline and expect student taxes to make up our debt. The choice is ours.
Jake Heimark ’10 is a human biology and economics concentrator from Palo Alto, California. He can be reached at jacob_heimark (at) brown.edu.