Former City Council member and co-founder of the East Side Public Education Coalition Sam Zurier is one of five candidates running in the primary for Rhode Island State Senate District 3 Democratic primary, which includes College Hill and Fox Point.
If elected, Zurier hopes to “help improve the Providence public schools to provide quality public education for all of its kids and to build a stronger partnership between the state of Rhode Island and the city of Providence to address the city’s current risk of financial instability,” he told The Herald.
“Public education is one of the central parts of my own values and (of) American values,” Zurier said. “In the ideal public school, we give every child the chance to realize they’re a version of the American dream.”
While he was a council member, Zurier was the Chair of the Education Subcommittee on Finance, where he worked on various pieces of legislation addressing Providence’s finances. If elected at the state level, Zurier said he “would be in a strong position” to make a bigger impact on the city, partly due to his track record as a council member — an experience that has given him “the knowledge to know what has to go into successful solutions.”
Greater funding and stronger accountability are Zurier’s two top priorities in improving Providence's school system. While the state of Rhode Island “did some things well” during their takeover of the Providence Public School System, “they also made some serious mistakes,” he said. One example he cited was the resignation of state-appointed former Providence Public Schools Superintendent Harrison Peters after an administrator he hired was charged with assaulting a teenage boy. Peters admitted to knowing about the administrator’s previous predatory behavior in Florida, The Herald previously reported.
Additionally, “many of the reforms that the state had promised when they began the takeover” were neglected in the Providence Teachers Union contract, he said. “Nobody got to review the contract until it was finalized.”
Zurier said these episodes are indicative of a failing state takeover. “They’re making mistakes because they are not accountable to anybody, and I’d like to change that,” he said. “I would advocate for an administrative group such as the Rhode Island Council on Elementary and Secondary Education to review decisions like those before they are finalized.”
One approach to further his goals of accountability and progress in the education system would be an amendment to the Rhode Island Constitution on the ballot that creates a “clear right to education,” Zurier told The Herald. Many states have a similar amendment, which, in Massachusetts, has allowed for greater funding and stronger accountability, making the state’s school system a standout in the country, he said.
Zurier’s platform also includes environmental justice. He said that he played a critical role in preventing the construction of a waste transfer station in the middle of a South Providence neighborhood that he noted was already plagued by “environmental injustices” such as asthma, lead blood poisoning and high levels of pollution. Zurier argued that the project would violate current regulations, and the project was eventually shut down. He added that his previous career as an environmental lawyer gives him “a leg up in terms of coming up with legislative solutions to environmental injustice.”
Edith Ajello, member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives from District 1, has endorsed Zurier. “His experience on the school committee and city council, as a lawyer working with the Massachusetts attorney general, his experience helping South Providence fight (a waste disposal) project, his knowledge of city issues that are important to voters and to the state” are just a few experiences that impressed Ajello.
“When you look at the problems facing the public schools, Sam has the knowledge to be advocating at the state level for the schools. He also understands the budget problems faced by the city,” Ajello said. She also praised his experience in aiding the city’s finances during his time as a city councilman.
“He’s the smartest guy in the room,” she added. “It is always important to elect the most qualified person, and in this race, I think Sam Zurier is the most qualified candidate” and the “best equipped” to tackle educational issues.
District 3 resident and Zurier supporter Jeremiah Allen similarly commended Zurier’s experience, noting that his openness to constituents was a highlight from his time on the city council. “He hosted meetings that interested parties were more than welcome to attend and (where they) could reasonably expect that their voice would be heard.”
“Sam Zurier is the best thing that’s ever happened to Rhode Island Democrats,” he said.