LaFortune: An unresolved issue for the new mayor

Guest Columnist
Friday, November 7, 2014

After months of incessant attacks on character, leadership and, most recently, religious beliefs, Providence’s mayoral race has finally ended, and the city has a newly elected mayor: Jorge Elorza. Though victorious, the former Housing Court judge and law professor inherits a slew of challenges — from crime to finances and, most importantly, education.

In an interview with Providence Business News, Providence School District Superintendent Susan Lusi highlighted the need to address learning gaps, as well as proficiency levels. Referencing the 2013-14 reports from the Rhode Island Department of Education, Lusi pointed out where there have been declines in proficiency in math and reading.

For some, underperforming schools may be an inconsequential matter, but for Hispanic and black parents, the city’s education problem is quite momentous. Both groups’ children lag in high school and college graduation rates. If schools are inadequately preparing students to advance due to a lack of resources, then how are these students expected to prepare for college and compete on both the national and global playing field? The fact is that they will not. Not only will these students be unable to compete, but they will also experience financial and educational hardships similar to those of their parents, thus remaining in their current socioeconomic status.

During their campaigns, the mayoral candidates failed to acknowledge that education and a lack of educational resources play a vital role in the city’s current economic state. The city of Providence struggles to retain recent college graduates. And though high school graduation rates have increased, reading proficiency has dropped to 49 percent from 50 percent the year prior, while math proficiency decreased to 32 percent from 34 percent. Our new mayor will not be able to ignore these long-standing issues.

Elorza has not yet outlined a concrete strategy to address the current education disparities. According to the latest U.S. census, Providence has an estimated population of 177,994, about 38.1 percent of which is Hispanic, 16.0 percent is black and 37.6 percent is white. Yet in a city where Hispanics and blacks combined make up the majority, most K-12 educational institutions are underperforming in comparison to surrounding cities like Barrington or North Smithfield, where 90 percent of the population is white, mainly due to the lack of resources in those aforementioned communities.

Providence has the opportunity to change the state of education in both the city and the state, and also to change the culture of education — to set a foundation for children regardless of race and socioeconomic status. But without support and necessary resources, the system will surely fail our children again, causing Providence to lose educated and high-performing individuals. These issues speak to the city’s future viability in terms of tax revenue, property values, talent retention and recruitment. College graduates and young families will opt to leave rather than stay, and the city will continue to lose significant tax dollars and support that is needed to make the Providence School District become a leading force in the educational arena.

Elorza needs to focus on the state of education and develop a sustainable plan that will modify the current education system. The reality is that education is fundamental. As adolescents, we all received the constant reminders from our teachers, but now that we are adults, the issue of education has lost its central importance. Elorza had an opportunity to receive a quality education, attending Classical High School, the University of Rhode Island and Harvard Law School. The majority of Providence constituents who voted in Tuesday’s election are not lawyers or doctors. Some may not have a college degree or even a high school diploma. Most have children receiving free or reduced lunch, and many have never been on the campuses of Brown, Harvard and Villanova University — or any other university, for that matter.

My question to the newly elected mayor of Providence is: How do we change this? How do we establish a system that will meet student and family needs, address the educational disparities — thus abating the achievement gap that currently exists — and provide teachers with adequate resources and development opportunities to allow principals and school leaders more autonomy to run their programs and make decisions? And how will we increase the high school graduation rate and ensure that all students go on to college and graduate, so that they too can contribute back to the city, becoming the leading force and agents of change?

Underperforming public schools and arguing for more vouchers undermine the viability of education. It is de facto segregation of the type practiced post-Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas, where white parents adhered to the mandated equal access and standards reached in the Court’s decision by establishing separate “academies” to educate their children apart from black — and poor — students. Underperforming public schools, low proficiency rates and the voucher system achieve the same effect, causing a permanent underclass of those students and families unable to participate in said system. It is, in effect, separate but equal all over again, but at the expense of the city’s public education system.

Elorza, I challenge you to change this system and create policy that will afford students in the Providence school district adequate educational resources, address the achievement gap and increase proficiency in math, reading and science.