Chafee not looking to sack Gist or the Regents

Gist addresses lawmakers last April

As I noted earlier this afternoon, Lincoln Chafee may get the chance to replace all but one member of the Board of Regents within a month of taking office. Considering that he and Education Commission Deborah Gist appear to hold differing visions for the future of education policy in Rhode Island, I wondered if he might take that opportunity to shake up the board and put his own people in place.

Au contraire, Chafee spokesman Mike Trainor told me in a phone interview a few minutes ago. “I just spoke to the governor-elect about this, and with all due respect, you may be jumping to conclusions that are not necessarily accurate,” he said. (Who, me?)

“Gov.-elect Chafee does not have any plans for a wholesale replacement of the Board of Regents,” Trainor explained. “He’s going to look at each of the members in light of their experience and their relationship to his education philosophy. But it would be wrong to speculate that the entire board is going to be replaced.”

Chafee was particularly impressed with the Regents’ efforts to solve the crisis at Central Falls High School earlier this year, Trainor said. During that period, Chafee called each of the board members to suggest that they hire a mediator to sort out the situation – which is what they wound up doing.

“The other thing we want to say,” Trainor added, “is Gov.-elect Chafee has been in regular touch with Commissioner Gist and expects to continue that dialogue, and he is looking forward to working with her.”

Fair enough, and quite conciliatory. I suggested to Trainor that quite a few people seem to expect some sort of clash between Chafee and Gist, and he said that’s precisely why he called. “We just don’t want it to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, either with respect to the entire board being replaced or the future of Commissioner Gist,” he said.

While we’re on the subject of Chafee’s views about education, one person who has shaped them is Diane Ravitch; if you want to understand why the governor-elect thinks the way he does about K-12, she’s a good place to start. Here’s how The New York Times began a profile of Ravitch last winter:

Diane Ravitch, the education historian who built her intellectual reputation battling progressive educators and served in the first Bush administration’s Education Department, is in the final stages of an astonishing, slow-motion about-face on almost every stand she once took on American schooling.

“Astonishing” is the right word for it. The Times story is a good place to begin for a primer on Ravitch, but if you really want to understand her critique of ed reform’s sacred cows, check out the long New York Review of Books essay she published earlier this month. Title: “The Myth of Charter Schools.” Here’s an excerpt:

Most Americans graduated from public schools, and most went from school to college or the workplace without thinking that their school had limited their life chances. There was a time—which now seems distant—when most people assumed that students’ performance in school was largely determined by their own efforts and by the circumstances and support of their family, not by their teachers. There were good teachers and mediocre teachers, even bad teachers, but in the end, most public schools offered ample opportunity for education to those willing to pursue it. The annual Gallup poll about education shows that Americans are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the quality of the nation’s schools, but 77 percent of public school parents award their own child’s public school a grade of A or B, the highest level of approval since the question was first asked in 1985.

“Waiting for Superman” and the other films appeal to a broad apprehension that the nation is falling behind in global competition. If the economy is a shambles, if poverty persists for significant segments of the population, if American kids are not as serious about their studies as their peers in other nations, the schools must be to blame. At last we have the culprit on which we can pin our anger, our palpable sense that something is very wrong with our society, that we are on the wrong track, and that America is losing the race for global dominance. It is not globalization or deindustrialization or poverty or our coarse popular culture or predatory financial practices that bear responsibility: it’s the public schools, their teachers, and their unions.

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