Carrigg GS: History matters for Rhode Island education

Opinions Columnist
Monday, September 23, 2013

Today, the people of Rhode Island find themselves in a simmering education debate, and this is nothing new. Throughout history, the Ocean State has had a rocky relationship with public education. But rarely is the long history of public education in Rhode Island taken into account when discussing the future.

Unlike Massachusetts and Connecticut, Rhode Island was not quick to embrace public education. Boston Latin School is the oldest public school in America and was founded April 23, 1635. Seven years later, Massachusetts passed a law mandating that parents and guardians must educate their children. By 1647, the Massachusetts General Court passed laws compelling towns of at least 50 people to set up schools. Ninety years later, Horace Mann 1819 became secretary of education for Massachusetts. By 1852, thanks to Mann’s reforms, Massachusetts established the first statewide compulsory education system in the United States.

In Rhode Island, things happened much differently. Though state founder Roger Williams was a teacher to many, the colony of Rhode Island never established a system of common schools. Newport was the first town to try having a public school. But schools there came in fits and starts. As early as 1640, there was some mention of schooling. And as early as 1685, there was talk of a school building. But this building had fallen down by 1700, and it took until 1739 to finish erecting a new school — which was then destroyed by fire in 1774. For 50 years after the fire, no physical school existed in Newport.

Providence was even slower to take to the idea of public education. In 1663, the State General Assembly authorized a grant of land for a school. But as of 1725, there was simply a classroom held at the State House, while no free schooling throughout Providence existed. In 1768, the city held a vote on instituting free public schools, but the proposal was defeated. Over 120 years after Massachusetts had compelled towns to provide free taxpayer-funded public schooling, such a school system was voted down in Providence. Meanwhile, in Barrington — which was then part of Swansea, Mass. — a free school was established in 1673. Barrington public schools remain among the best in the state today.

In the end, it was not until 1828 that a free system of public education came to Providence. And it took until 1883 for Rhode Island to institute statewide free and compulsory education, 31 years after Massachusetts had done it. In short, Little Rhody has a long history of being New England’s public education laggard.

Why might this matter? What does this have to do with today? Communities grew over the time in which Rhode Island debated public education. Municipalities formed. Town and city borders ossified. In Massachusetts and Connecticut, communities grew around schools. In Rhode Island, communities formed without them. The town and city borders of this state were drawn without schools in mind. And education is now the single largest expenditure for municipalities in the state.

Given the historical evolution of public education in Rhode Island, it is doubtful that the short-term fixes we so often focus on will be sufficient to help us to catch up to our neighbors. Charter schools, standardized testing, performance metrics and Race to the Top grants do not take into account land use and settlement patterns. They certainly don’t take into account the historical-political development of education systems. Even the best-intentioned education reform efforts will not be successful if they cannot correctly diagnose the problem they are attempting to fix.

Education reforms have largely ignored long-term statewide planning, land use and municipal development. This is a mistake, particularly given Rhode Island’s history. The borders of Rhode Island municipalities were drawn without a mind to education, the demographics of students or a tax base to support them.

With a long-term plan, consistent long-term investment and constructive input from the community, we could atone for some of the sins of the past. A more rational and less haphazard system could be built for future generations. This is a worthwhile discussion to start having within our communities. We could spend some effort now studying the comparative land use, demographic and tax revenue issues between school districts in Rhode Island and our neighboring states. At the very least, it would be useful to know to what extent the political development of public education in Rhode Island puts this state in a unique position. That way, we might just find solutions specifically tailored for the Ocean State.


Daniel Carrigg GS loves this little state he has made his home. He can be reached at