Everything you need to know about Rhode Island’s ’empowerment schools’

Dr. Ken Wagner speaks at the Rhode Island State House. (photo: Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – From budgeting to class schedules, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner on Wednesday unveiled a plan to give principals and teachers sweeping control over most of the major decisions made in their schools every day.

In his first State of Education address to the General Assembly, Wagner said he wants to create “empowerment schools” that would give leaders in traditional public schools the freedom to redesign their classrooms as they see fit.

So how will it work? Here’s an overview.

What is the School and Family Empowerment Act?
As the proposal is written, individual schools that choose to become empowerment schools would have “unprecedented levels of regulatory and statutory flexibility,” which could include control over budgeting, hiring and firing of faculty, instruction policies and the school calendar. For example, if a school wants to go all-in on a computer-science program, it can choose to do that as long as the teachers in the school are willing to support it. Empowerment schools could also choose to allow open enrollment, meaning they would accept students from outside their assigned district. In other words, if Classical High School in Providence wants to accept students from Pawtucket, it can. The schools would not be required to accept students from outside their school district.

What’s the point?
As Commissioner Wagner stated in his State of Education address, “the way we do schooling – how we divide up the school day and knowledge and learning – was designed to meet the assembly-line and factory needs of the 19th century.” At the same time, the results don’t lie. Only 36% of students in grades three through 10 met or exceeded expectations in the English language arts section of the PARCC exam last year; for math, only 25% were considered proficient. In order to move education into the 21st century and improve outcomes, Wagner said principals and teachers should be given more flexibility because they’re the ones who know their students the best. Of course, that flexibility can only come from giving schools more control. Under Wagner’s proposal, a school leadership team comprised of a principal and faculty members would be allowed to craft policies, but the principal would have final approval.

When does this all begin?
If the School and Family Empowerment Act is approved this year, schools would be allowed to explore the possibility of becoming an empowerment school during the 2016-17 year. If they choose to move forward, schools could begin a pilot phase of implementation during the 2017-18 school year. By the 2018-19 school year, the goal is to have everything in place.

You keep saying schools have a choice to participate. Is this voluntary?
Completely. To become an empowerment school, a school would need the approval of two-thirds of the full-time professional staff in the school as well as support from the superintendent and school committee in that district. Empowerment schools would be authorized to operate for up to three years and then would be allowed to be renewed in three-year increments. There aren’t many requirements tied to becoming an empowerment school either, meaning that just because a school wants to have more autonomy, it won’t be required to accept students from another district. On the flip side, it’s possible for a school to become an empowerment school simply to bring in students from other districts.

Why would a school want open enrollment?
Good question. There are some scenarios that make a lot of sense.  For example, the Providence Career and Technical Academy (PCTA) is located in a state-of-the-art building near downtown. If a student from Barrington really wanted to learn about construction, they could attend PCTA and benefit from both the education and the diversity of the capital city. Warwick has had enrollment issues in recent years. Perhaps schools there would be interested in increasing numbers by allowing students to attend from outside the district. Of course, it’s easy to see barriers here too. What does East Greenwich get out of allowing students from Central Falls to attend? The best answer is probably a little more money through the state’s funding formula. The truth is no one is expecting a significant percentage of students to suddenly move to different school districts. A version of this policy is already in place in Massachusetts and about 1.5% of students attended school outside of their home district during the 2013-14 school year, according to WBUR.

Does this mean East Providence High School could simply recruit all the best athletes and become a powerhouse?
Not exactly. The Townies probably can’t just become the Staties. The proposed law states that admission criteria must be “clearly derived from the academic and instructional demands of the program and/or grade level.” In other words, the ability to hit a baseball can’t be part of the criteria. Schools would also be required to prioritize programming and school enrollment for resident students and no school will have to accept students if it doesn’t have the space.  In the event that so many out-of-district students want to attend one school that it runs out of space, a lottery for nonresidents would occur.

How much does this cost?
That’s very unclear. Governor Raimondo’s proposed budget includes nearly $3 million for what Commissioner Wagner calls “leadership and empowerment work.” That includes $1 million for preparing teacher and principal leadership pipelines, $1 million for school and district teams to design these empowerment plans and about $750,000 for expert teachers to provide instructional leadership statewide. None of that quite answers the question of how much it will cost to become an empowerment school, but it explains how a school might lay the groundwork. Wagner says he initially expects between five and 10 schools to seek to become empowerment schools within the first three years of the program, but the department of education doesn’t have any projections at this point. Look for questions to be raised specifically around transportation. The plan is to require receiving districts to cover the cost of transportation for students.

It seems like teachers’ unions might not love this idea. Is that right?
It’s so new that it’s tough to say, but you’re probably right. In a Facebook post, the president of the Providence Teachers Union called it “an end-run around collective bargaining and another backdoor union-busting deal.” Of course, the department of education would say that teachers have the final say because they’re the ones that have to approve whether to become an empowerment school. The law gives empowerment schools the ability to amend existing district-wide contracts, essentially through a memorandum of understanding for individual schools.

What happens next?
Governor Raimondo is asking the General Assembly to approve the School and Family Empowerment Act as part of the state budget, which means lawmakers will consider voting on it before the end of June. While the administration works behind the scenes the convince the House and Senate to support the proposal, the department of education will likely spend the next several months seeking support from school districts and the unions.

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

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