Mayoral candidates oppose NECAP, city busing policy

Six mayoral candidates discuss education at forum. (photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – All six of the candidates vying to succeed Angel Taveras as mayor of Rhode Island’s capital city said they oppose tying performance on the NECAP to a high school diploma and pledged to improve the city’s much-maligned school busing policy during a candidate forum Thursday afternoon.

The two-hour youth-led event was hosted by the Providence Student Union and Young Voices, two student activist groups that have railed against Rhode Island’s current high school graduation requirements over the last year. The forum was held at the Juanita Sanchez School Complex on Thurbers Avenue.

The candidates, including Democrats City Council President Michael Solomon, former Water Supply Board Chairman Brett Smiley, former Housing Court Judge Jorge Elorza, East Side businessman Lorne Adrain, Chris Young and Republican Daniel Harrop, largely agreed on ways to improve the city’s struggling public schools, but offered little substance on how they would accomplish their goals.

Taveras, the first-term incumbent, is running in a Democratic primary for governor.

“It is immoral that the quality of schooling is based on the value and location of your home,” Harrop told the crowd of approximately 100. Harrop argued in favor of school choice, but warned the attendees that the city’s shaky financial status will limit all the candidates’ abilities to follow through on their campaign promises.

Harrop said Providence needs high-quality teachers who have the appropriate credentials to lead classrooms across the city and acknowledged that while he opposes the use of NECAP for the state’s high school graduation requirements, students need to be prepared for the significant amount of testing they’ll face throughout their lives.

Beginning with the class of 2014, high school students must score at least partially proficient on the math and English sections of the NECAP – short for the New England Common Assessment Program – exam in order to be eligible for a diploma. The students are given three opportunities to take the test and have the ability to use alternate tests to show proficiency. Most school districts have committed to providing graduation waivers to students who are accepted to four-year colleges even if they don’t earn a qualifying score on a standardized test.

Solomon, who has served as City Council president since 2011, pitched himself as a candidate who was born and raised in Providence and later opened several restaurants and a catering business in the city. If elected, he has said he wants to borrow $250 million over the course of ten years in order to renovate many of the city’s decrepit school buildings.

Solomon also said he supports reducing the distance requirement for high school students to qualify for a free bus pass from three miles to two, a policy that has been in place for more than 20 years. In February, the Providence Student Union led politicians and other stakeholders on a 2.96-mile walk from a student’s home in the city’s Wanskuck neighborhood to the Providence School Department on Westminster Street. School officials say the change would cost the city an extra $1 million annually.

“This is our city, this is your city,” Solomon told the students. “If we want to work to improve it, we’re going to have to work together.”

Like the rest of his opponents, Smiley said he too opposes the use of NECAP for high school graduation and supports reducing the busing distance requirement for students. He has called for RIPTA to immediately implement a “bad weather day” policy that would provide free busing to Providence students anytime there is inclement weather.

Smiley said the 24,000-student school district needs more minority and bilingual teachers to better reflect diversity in Providence. He also expressed concern that “excessive testing” has caused arts and other extracurricular activities to fall by the wayside in public schools.

“The goal is not teaching people how to test, the goal is teaching students how to learn,” Smiley said.

In addition to touting himself as the first candidate to publicly oppose NECAP and the city’s busing policy, Elorza said Providence needs to rethink the way it teaches its students. He said he wants to see schools open year-round and be used as community centers during out-of-school hours. He called for “universal Wi-Fi” in all schools and mocked the district for blocking Google, the world’s largest search engine, from its computers.

Elorza also said too many teachers are leaving the profession, pointing to a 2013 Atlantic Monthly article that suggested between 40 and 50 percent of teachers do not make it past their first five years on the job. If elected, he pledged to provide more resources and support for educators.

“We’ve made it very challenging to be a teacher these days,” he said.

Adrain noted that during his time as chairman of the Board of Governors for Higher Education, he helped lead the charge to approve a policy that grants in-state tuition to undocumented students. He pledged to run City Hall as a “world class customer service organization” if he’s elected mayor.

Adrain said he supports high academic standards, but “it is hard for me to imagine that a single test can serve as a fair measure” of a student’s learning ability. He said he supports reducing the busing distance requirement because “the cost of absenteeism” far exceeds to cost of providing more bus passes.

“Our responsibility as a community is to prepare all of our students for the future,” Adrain said.

Young, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2006 and 2010, said his campaign centers around forcing Brown University to pay taxes to the city to help Providence offset its expenses. He warned that his opponents are making the same promises politicians have failed to keep in the past.

“I’m the only candidate who will tax Brown University,” Young said.

The Democratic primary is Sept. 9. The general election is in Nov. 4.

Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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