As term nears end, Gov. Chafee sees ‘progress’ on education

Lincoln Chafee waves at the 2014 State of the State speech.
Lincoln Chafee waves at the 2014 State of the State speech.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Nearly two months after Lincoln Chafee launched his campaign for governor in 2010, he sat in the Central Falls High School auditorium and watched as the city’s school board called out the names of 93 teachers, specialists and guidance counselors. All of them were fired.

Chafee still recalls the tears shed by students as they watched their teachers lose their jobs and the angry union protesters who loudly opposed the board’s decision, one that made the one-square-mile city a national battleground over school reform on that February evening. He promised himself things would be different if he won the state’s top job.

Now, as he enters the final months of his one and only term as governor of Rhode Island, Chafee says he has put a halt to the “divisive labor warfare” he inherited thanks to compromises on both sides. And while a large achievement gap between poor and affluent students still exists, Chafee argues the investments he’s made in education have put the state on a path toward producing better outcomes.

“I consistently said, ‘Invest in education, invest in our infrastructure and invest in work force development,’” Chafee told WPRI.com during a State House interview last week. “We’re closing the skills gap. Those are the pillars, the foundations of building a good economy.”

Chafee, who served in the U.S. Senate as a Republican and won the governor’s office as an independent before joining the Democratic Party last year, is not seeking re-election this fall, following several years of dismal approval ratings and little buy-in from state lawmakers.

But even as the General Assembly balked at many of his proposals – including a year one plan to lower and broaden the sales tax – Chafee said the sides have found common ground on education.

“The amazing thing is that through all the adversity and proposals that have not been accepted, this is one that consistently in all four years the General Assembly has fully embraced,” Chafee said.

He continued: “I had limited success, but this is one where I had full success.”

Chafee’s four budgets have included an additional $29.4 million in funding for the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and the Community College of Rhode Island, which helped to restore all of the cuts made to higher education during the second term of Republican Gov. Don Carcieri, according to the Chafee administration.

As further evidence of his commitment to funding education, Chafee touts three consecutive years of tuition freezes at the colleges; a plan to build a nursing education center that will house programs from both URI and RIC under one roof at the South Street Power Station in Providence; and a $125-million bond referendum that would build a new engineering school at URI if voters approve it.

On the elementary and secondary education side, Chafee and the legislature have fully funded the education funding formula lawmakers enacted in 2010, pouring an additional $158.4 million into local school districts since the 2010-11 fiscal year, according to figured reviewed by WPRI.com.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who spent much of Chafee’s term as the House majority leader before being elevated to the chamber’s top job in March, said he and the governor “share the same vision that our next generation must be properly prepared for our future economic challenges.”

“We met frequently when putting together this year’s budget and I always admire the passion that Governor Chafee has shown about providing an increased funding stream for public education, from kindergarten through college,” Mattiello said.

Navigating labor peace

Chafee was elected with 36% of the vote in a four-way general election in 2010, thanks in large part to endorsements from several public employee unions, including the Rhode Island chapters of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Not long before, school reform advocates had successfully lobbied the state to loosen its cap on charter schools and to approve a Race to the Top application that ultimately led to a $75-million federal grant, which was tied to an ambitious plan that included teacher evaluations and a move toward a new set of academic standards known as the Common Core.

That coupled with the 2009 hiring of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist – “she was getting standing ovations everywhere she went,” Chafee recalls – led teachers’ unions to believe they were under attack in Rhode Island.

And of course, there was Central Falls.

New Obama administration regulations requiring states to identify their lowest 5% of schools in terms of academic performance and commit to significant reforms led Dr. Fran Gallo, the city’s superintendent, to fire every teacher at Central Falls High School as part of a turnaround plan. Carcieri and Gist supported the terminations. Chafee calls it one of the “most memorable” events of his political career.

Although the teachers were eventually rehired as part of an agreement that included extending the school day and implementing more stringent teacher evaluations, the tension between the unions and state officials lingered. Chafee says he helped smooth things over.

“I’m very proud that we were able to navigate a labor peace through my four years,” Chafee said. “I kept Deborah Gist. That did not make them happy. They wanted her fired right away. I wanted to navigate. And she’s been flexible.”

Unions have unfinished business

But while Chafee critics have spent most of his gubernatorial term suggesting he’s too cozy with public employees, the evidence suggests the change in tone hasn’t led to many union victories.

In 2011, Chafee signed the state’s pension reform bill into law over the objection of most public unions. A year later he unveiled a municipal relief package that would have allowed cities and towns to suspend cost-of-living adjustments for retirees while limiting the scope of binding arbitration. Last year, he supported a two-year contract extension for Gist, a decision that again landed him in hot water with teachers.

Chafee called his decision to retain Gist another example of his ability to compromise. He noted that she wanted a three-year deal, but ended up with a contract that will expire next June. He credited her with working with unions to keep labor peace.

“She might not be getting standing ovations but she doesn’t get hundreds of picketers and that’s what was happening back then,” Chafee said.

Patrick Crowley, government relations director for NEARI, said much of Chafee’s legacy on education is still unwritten. He acknowledged that his union has been disappointed in some decisions, but said they still have “unfinished business” with the governor. He said both teachers’ unions are still negotiating a contract for higher education employees with the state.

“Education has played out as a top priority when it comes to politics,” Crowley said. “But when it comes to policy, these things take time.”

NECAP, evaluations

Policy-wise, Chafee says he hasn’t changed much. He’s still wary of charter schools taking in money that could go to traditional public schools. He was skeptical of the Race to the Top grant because he wasn’t sure what would happen when the funding ran out, but he says he doesn’t believe it is creating a structural deficit now that the money is coming off the books.

Chafee asked his Board of Education to support the use of standardized testing for the state’s high school graduation requirements, but he also declined to veto legislation that placed a three-year moratorium on high-stakes testing because it had overwhelming support in the General Assembly. He let the legislation become law without his signature. He did the same with a bill that scaled back teacher evaluations.

Those decisions have been met with scorn from school reform advocates who say the state is still plagued by low test scores and an ineffective process for reviewing teachers.

Although districts across the state have shown modest improvements over the last five years, more than one in three Rhode Island 11th graders scored substantially below proficient on the math or English section of the state’s standardized test last fall. If the testing portion of the graduation requirements hadn’t been suspended, those students would be at risk of not receiving a diploma as they enter their senior year.

On evaluations, a report released by the state showed 95% of teachers were rated “effective” or “highly effective” during the 2012-13 school year while fewer than 1% of educators were labeled “ineffective,” but two-thirds of building administrators admitted in an end of the year survey that they assigned an inflated rating to teachers. An ineffective rating could trigger a loss of certification if improvement isn’t shown.

“For me, it’s a question of accountability,” Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Communities, told WPRI.com. “President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan pushed for teacher evaluation and graduation requirements. We seem to have veered away from that.”

Gary Sasse, director of the Hassenfeld Institute at Bryant University, commended Chafee for keeping the state’s funding formula on schedule and upping aid to the public colleges, but said that the governor still has done little to increase achievement. He said the state still doesn’t offer enough financial support to school districts and criticized Chafee for his “lack of public leadership” around the legislature’s abrupt 2012 move to create one board to oversee all education policy from pre-K through college.

“Rhode Island’s economic future is linked to educating the poor and minorities so they can be productive members of the workforce,” Sasse told WPRI.com. “In some ways the Chafee administration may not have always recognized that providing all kids with adequate educational opportunities is the civil rights issue of our day.”

Making progress

With his days numbered, Chafee said the most important thing his successor can do is commit to continuing to adequately fund education in the coming years. The governor said school infrastructure should be a top priority, but acknowledged that he didn’t know the General Assembly extended a moratorium for school building projects until after he signed the 2014-15 fiscal year budget into law.

“There is a relationship, I believe, in the quality of your workplace and the quality of your work,” Chafee said.

Still, Chafee said that although change won’t happen overnight, he’s confident he’s helped lay the groundwork for success.

“I have a good feeling this is the atmosphere you want of people, working toward a common goal together,” Chafee said. “Different viewpoints, but we have a common goal. We’re making progress, that’s the feeling I have.”

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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