Biz leaders backed Raimondo’s education package

Gov. Gina Raimondo & Education Commissioner Ken Wagner

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The $8.9-billion state budget approved by the R.I. House of Representatives Wednesday includes the vast majority of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s spending proposals for education, sending a message to the state’s business leaders that their advocacy was heard loud and clear.

In a letter to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed last month, top leaders from Hasbro, Citizens Financial Group, Bank of America, Amica, Electric Boat, Gilbane, Textron, IGT Global Solutions Corp., CVS Health and FM Global urged the two leaders to approve Article 11 of the state budget, which included changes to the educating funding formula and the creation of empowerment schools, as well as several in-school investments they say will improve outcomes for students.

“Whether it’s the classroom, the boardroom, or the State House, collaborative leadership is the key to transformational change,” the group wrote. “The governor has set the table for improving our school system through the initiatives described, and we ask that you support her efforts.”

The budget, which will be considered by the Senate Finance Committee Thursday, makes significant changes to the way charter schools are funded and minor tweaks to Education Commissioner Ken Wagner’s plan to give teachers and school leaders more autonomy in their classrooms, but includes the governor’s proposal to create a funding stream for English language learners (ELL), provides more money for special needs students and pays for all high school students to take the PSAT and SAT.

The budget also continues to fund the expansion of state-funded pre-K, helps every public school provide computer science courses and requires individual schools to publicly disclose their annual budget, a transparency initiative the business leaders said gives all stakeholders a “clear-eyed look at spending across individual schools in all of the districts in the state.”

In an interview Thursday, Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner praised state leaders for keeping the majority of the governor’s proposal intact, setting Rhode Island students on a path to obtain the “skills they need to get jobs for this next century.”

“We’re in the starting gate, we see the path in front of us,” Goldner told Eyewitness News. “I think it’s a very positive path for us.”

Goldner credited Wagner for his “bold proposal” to create empowerment schools early in his tenure as commissioner. Under Wagner’s plan, school leaders would be given “unprecedented levels of regulatory and statutory flexibility” as long as two-thirds of the full-time professional staff in the school sign off on additional autonomy in their workplace.

“We know how long it takes to make new initiatives stick,” Goldner said.

Goldner did express concern about the House’s changes to the funding formula, which critics say is less predictable than the governor’s proposal. Rather than allowing school districts to keep $355 for every student they send to a charter school, districts will be allowed to reduce charter school tuition by either 7% or by the total cost of a slew of specific expenses charters don’t typically incur, like services for students between the ages of 18 and 21 or transportation for private school kids.

The changes have drawn the ire of suburban charter schools, but a group of 14 independent urban charter school leaders signed a letter this week support the House version of the funding formula.

“To have a budget that becomes less predictable, you have a budget that becomes less reliable,” Goldner said.

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

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