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Ed. commissioner maintains positive outlook for R.I. schools

Education Commissioner Deborah Gist expressed optimism about the implementation of federal Race to the Top funding and the current outlook for the state's education program in front of the Rhode Island House of Representatives Health, Education and Welfare Committee yesterday. She did not touch on recent dramatic educational developments in the state, such as the planned closing of four Providence schools, the dismissal of all the city's teachers or the shake-up in the state board of regents.

 "We have incredible things going on all over the state," she said.

Rhode Island is slated to receive $75 million in Race to the Top funding in the coming school year. Gist emphasized the state's "very brief window of time to use this funding and use it well." She urged legislators to "take advantage of this investment to turn our schools around."

Gist articulated her goal to create "the best public schools in America," which she noted are currently "only a short drive away" in Massachusetts.

She expressed gratitude to Gov. Lincoln Chafee '75 P'14 for formulating a budget plan that fully finances her funding formula, which allocates nearly $700 million to schools starting July 1. Gist described the formula as "dynamic," because the amount of money the state distributes to each district is dependent on how many students are enrolled, so "the funding follows the student."

Gist said she is proud Chafee's budget has promised "solid support" for education. Chafee, who plans to dedicate an additional $10 million to higher education in the state, sees investments in education as "essentially an investment in our economy," according to Gist.

Gist cited a recent success — on state assessments, Rhode Island high school students outperformed students in New Hampshire and Vermont.

She also explored some major issues plaguing the state's education system. Only 33 percent of high school students are proficient in mathematics. The graduation rate, which is around 75 percent statewide, is 60 percent or lower in some schools. And, by some statistics, Hispanic students in Rhode Island have the lowest achievement in the country as compared to Hispanic students in other states, which Gist said she found "deeply, deeply disturbing."

The state aims to grapple with these problems through a number of new programs, including her funding formula, Gist said. The recently instituted Uniform Chart of Accounts — a "system of accounting that provides transparency … uniformity and accountability in how schools are investing their funds" — will help school officials analyze how best to distribute money. Gist said the system will make it possible to "compare financial data from district to district and school to school."

During the question and answer session, Gist defended the New England Common Assessment Program, which the representative asking the question referred to as "high stakes," because poor scores lead to reduced federal funding.

"Our state assessment … is absolutely appropriate," she said. But she added that annual feedback is not frequent enough to help teachers improve. "We want to make sure that our teachers have tools to use on an on-going basis," she said.

Gist's address ended with a discussion of the next bill on the committee's agenda, which would allow certain schools within the state to use Race to the Top grants to temporarily employ retired teachers, administrators and state Board of Regents employees. If the bill passes, a total of 50 education professionals — whom Gist called "master teachers" — would be hired as "intermediate service providers" for up to 90 days per school year for three years to help with standards, curriculum and evaluations.

"We want to hire the best," Gist said. "We don't want to be restrictive about that."

The bill would keep jobs in Rhode Island, Gist said. "If we don't have this passed, our alternative is to go to Connecticut and Massachusetts and hire people there," she said. She added she would rather hire professionals from within the state who understand the system and the community.

State Rep. James McLaughlin, D-Cumberland and Central Falls, expressed concern about pulling former education professionals out of retirement while many teachers are unemployed in the state.

Gist encouraged available teachers to apply for the positions, but emphasized that the plan "can't be a program for jobs."

"This is not going to resolve employment," she said. "We have to make the decisions that are best for our students."



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