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Editorial: Thought, yes, delay, no

Monday, February 14, 2011

Governor Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 elicited concern from charter school supporters when he announced last month that he would take a “thoughtful pause” before expanding the state’s charter schools. The governor made waves again earlier this month when he shook up the state’s Board of Regents, which helps oversee Rhode Island’s public schools. Given the importance of public education, we took a pause of our own to consider these changes.

Former state House Majority Leader George Caruolo will take over the chairmanship of the Board of Regents from former Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice Robert Flanders Jr. ’71. Flanders, along with several other board members Chafee replaced, supports Education Commissioner Deborah Gist. Teachers’ unions are often at odds with Gist, especially over her support for charter schools, and how well Chafee will work out his disagreements with the commissioner is a looming question. Caruolo is known as an effective politician. We hope he puts his skill to use, shaping conflicts between Chafee and Gist into compromised agreements to take action, not discord-fueled gridlock.

Chafee’s choice of words is not as commendable as his choice of chairman. The intentional ambiguity of the phrase “thoughtful pause” is unbefitting of a governor whose campaign rested on “trust.” In response to critics, Chafee spokesman Michael Trainor told the Providence Journal, “Governor Chafee finds it odd that any one person or group would object to a thoughtful pause.” Indeed, who could argue with giving a complex issue thought! But the Governor should answer criticism, not deflect it with rhetorical games. It is also concerning that Chafee is so confident this pause will not jeopardize federal Race to the Top funds when many, including Professor of Political Science Marion Orr say, “Clearly, a governor who is pushing back on charter schools jeopardizes those funds.” Furthermore, the calls for a pause and to bring education policy expert Diane Ravitch to Rhode Island sometime before “the beginning of spring” do not demonstrate the urgency we need on education issues.

We would like to see the governor be more forthcoming about his discussions with federal officials regarding Race to the Top funds and immediately begin working with Gist and others to craft a compromise. Charter schools will not provide every answer we need to strengthen all public schools. Ravitch, a former advocate of charter schools who is now one of their leading critics, likes to point to one well known study which found that a mere 17 percent of charter schools nationwide were outperforming traditional public schools in math. But we wish that, rather than pausing, Chafee were clamoring to find out what high-performing charter schools are doing right, and whether those strategies can be implemented system-wide.

Gist’s recent proposals to tighten the standards charter schools must meet are a useful starting point for compromise. Her efforts seek to answer in part a common criticism Ravitch makes — that many charter schools fail their students academically and the community at large — for example, by cherry-picking only the best students and thereby depleting the population at other public schools.

We believe charter schools can be a useful partner to traditional public schools. For this partnership to yield benefits, however, the governor must strive to make charter supporters and opponents allies, not adversaries. He need not pause before beginning this process.  

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board. Send comments to

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