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Chafee's nominees may shift educational policy

In his most high-profile act yet to shape Rhode Island's education policy, Governor Lincoln Chafee '75 P'14 announced four nominations to the Rhode Island Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education early last week. The nominations come as the state contemplates controversial education reforms proposed by Deborah Gist, commissioner of elementary and secondary education.

Chafee was elected in November with strong support from the state's teachers' unions, which have steadfastly opposed Gist's reforms.

The nominees, who must be confirmed by the state Senate before they can officially take office March 3, represent a diverse set of leaders from across Rhode Island. George Caruolo — a former House Majority leader — was nominated to replace current Chairman Justice Robert Flanders '71, who was appointed by former governor Donald Carcieri '65. Chafee recently named Flanders to oversee the receivership of Central Falls, which was placed under state control due to financial distress.

Other nominees include former University of Rhode Island president Robert Carothers, Rhode Island education policy veteran Mathies Santos '77 and Institute for Labor Studies Program Director Carolina Bernal. Patrick Guida, Colleen Callahan, Betsy Shimberg and Karin Forbes have been asked by Chafee to maintain their current positions on the board.

Carcieri-appointed Board of Regents members Angus Davis and Anna Cano-Morales have not been asked to remain on the board. They learned of Chafee's decision to remove them by reading about it online, according to yesterday's Providence Journal.

The governor met individually with each of the four nominees prior to the announcement, Chafee spokesman Mike Trainor said. "They understand what their shared vision of education policy should be in the state."

Kenneth Wong, professor of education and chair of the department, said he was pleased with the variety of the picks, noting that Caruolo especially has "tremendous legislative experience."

The former majority leader is known throughout Rhode Island for his sponsorship of the 1995 Caruolo Act — a law that provides a framework for resolving school funding disputes between school committees and city and town councils.

"It's important to have a champion who understands how the government functions," Wong said of Chafee's choice for the chairmanship.

Although it is hard to predict the direction the new board will take in the upcoming months, its ties to organized labor should not be discounted, said Victor Profughi, Rhode Island College professor emeritus of political science and director of the polling firm Quest Research. It is clear that board members' individual relationships "with the teachers establishments is going to influence their thought process," he added. "One would think that they would be more sympathetic to the positions of the union."

Racing to the top

Chafee's decision not to reappoint Davis — a technology entrepreneur and a strong supporter of Gist's reforms — has riled reform supporters.

Davis played a key role in lifting a cap on new charter schools beyond two per district.

While the decision not to reappoint Davis to the board may slow down the implementation of certain policies, Chafee is following protocol for newly elected governors, Wong said. It was "very important for the new governor to use the structure and board appointments to make sure his priorities would be taken seriously."

Much of the recent concern, Trainor said, stems from the governor's decision to "take a thoughtful pause" in charter school expansion to permit a closer examination of the state's 15 current charter schools.

Education groups around the state have expressed worries that a halt in charter school expansion will also result in a halt in Race to the Top funding. The Obama administration awarded Rhode Island $75 million as part of its education reform initiative in October. Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now and "the burgeoning education reform movement in Rhode Island will be closely watching the actions of the new board members," Maryellen Butke, the executive director of RI-CAN, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.

Marion Orr, professor of political science and director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy, said although federal waivers may be possible, the future of the federal funding remains uncertain. "Clearly, a governor who is pushing back on charter schools jeopardizes those funds," he said. "The question becomes whether or not the new state government can work with the federal officials."

In reality, a "tiny, tiny" portion of the grant is directed specifically at charter schools, Trainor said. Modifications are certainly possible — Chafee has been in discussion with federal officials, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, to ensure that the status of the grant money remains unaltered.

According to Trainor, a study of charter schools conducted by the Rhode Island Foundation will provide Chafee with the information and data he needs to make a well-informed decision. The review process will take approximately six months.

"The Governor is absolutely confident that there is no chance of losing the $75 million," he said.

Stepping back from reform

In the board's public meeting last Thursday, Gist announced changes to previously proposed graduation requirements. Gist had proposed changing the state's graduation requirements to a three-tiered diploma system, which would award high school degrees based on students' achievement on the New England Common Assessment Program standardized test.

Gist said she now supports issuing only one diploma. Instead, "endorsements" will be offered to those students who display particularly high levels of achievement, she said.

Change will also come in the form of timing. Gist told the board she plans to recommend delaying new graduation requirements so they will first apply to the graduating class of 2014 — a two-year shift from the current proposal. According to Gist, this will allow school districts the necessary time to adequately educate students and their families on the new requirements.

By slowing down the process, "she's already providing a gesture — a very important step to assure that the new board would find her agreeable and being willing to work with them," said Wong.

Gist's recommendations will be discussed in greater detail Feb. 10 during the board's public work session at the R.I. Department of Education.

The decision to alter the requirements follows as a partial result of the "very eloquent" testimony of the 133 teachers, parents and other community members presented over the course of three public hearings, Gist told the board at the hearing last Thursday.

Aaron Regunberg '12  is a leader of Hope United, the student group responsible for organizing the Hope High School walkout to protest changes to the high school's schedule. "They haven't seen a mobilization like that in a while," he said. It was a "comprehensive group of people who usually don't get along." At the time, Regunberg said, he still didn't think the board had been influenced by the public's testimony.

While Regunberg was pleased by the rejection of the tiered system, which he called "racist, classist elitism," he said many of the requirements still stand to be challenged. "It was a really good political call for them," he said of Gist's decision to back off the proposals.

A passing score on the New England Common Assessment Program will remain a requirement for the class of 2014. According to Steve Brown, the executive director of the R.I. American Civil Liberties Union — a group opposed to the new requirements — the test was never meant to be a high-stakes indicator of student achievement.

"It was designed to hold schools accountable — not students," Brown said. "It's really perverse
to turn this test on a tread and punish the student."

Though the new recommendations were made in the days following the announcement of Chafee's nominations, Profughi said he does not think that Gist made the decision as a direct way to appease Chafee and the board.

"She has demonstrated herself to be a pretty strong personality," he said. "It would be out of character for her to simply respond to a new board of regents."


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