Thursday, March 01, 2012

There is a White Paper to be Written

The thing I'm wondering about is whether there is any organization, bloc of politicians, whatever, with the interest and gravitas necessary to put out a short but substantial white paper proposing consolidating Rhode Island into one school district with the primary goals of economic desegregation and fiscal stabilization (but not necessarily substantial cost savings overall). This is triggered by two things:

  1. The realization that once you separate "free-" from "reduced-" lunch eligibility when looking at school demographics, the school-by-school outlook in Rhode Island is a lot clearer than it is otherwise:

    • Above 70% free lunch, there are about 55 (out of 307) schools, none* of which have sustained high test scores and more qualitative measures of success (i.e., public perception) over time. It is important to note that over the past 10 years a number of schools have proven that it is possible to have high achievement (and improved public perception) of very high poverty schools in Providence, but what we have also learned, over and over and over and over again, is that these efforts cannot be sustained politically. The schools and the district are simply too weak as institutions, and there is no indication that our current course will strengthen them (quite the opposite).
    • Starting at about 70% free lunch (and down), we have some schools that are recognized as successful, e.g., Reservoir Elementary in the PPSD, The Learing Community charter. Basically all the charters are under this level.
    • Around 45% free lunch and below you get urban schools with very good reputations (among various interest groups) like Blackstone Valley Prep (mayoral academy), Vartan Gregorian (PPSD), and Classical (PPSD).
    • The statewide average is around 35% free lunch.

    The key argument here should be about schools as institutions. Schools with too high a rate of poverty are too weak to sustain improvement. There is a tragically long list of examples of schools that have improved and declined and no counterexamples in Rhode Island. None.

    The center of the pitch would be the 45% free lunch schools -- highlighting the well-known examples that schools with this level of poverty can be strong and attract happy middle and upper class white parents.

  2. There are way too many insolvent cities and school districts. You've got both the structurally screwed urban districts firing all their teachers periodically and threatening or actually filing for bankruptcy. This includes a number of inner ring suburbs. You've also got the towns who are going to be destroyed by losses under the new funding formula. It would be difficult to argue that the existing system actually works.

    In particular, no serious analysis can doubt the death spiral the PPSD faces. Mayor Taveras's mayoral academy proposals would likely suck over $11 million dollars a year out of the district by 2018, and who knows how many more charters will be proposed between now and then. There is no reason to think these won't all further concentrate the poorest students into the shrinking PPSD, with endless rounds of school closings, layoffs, etc. Having all this happen within the context of a statewide district would be much less disruptive and painful for the children of Providence in several ways.

I should hasten to say that I don't literally think this will become law any time soon, but it is the actual correct solution to the current dilemmas. And even insofar that I don't agree with the entire reform thrust at this point, everything RIDE is doing would make more sense and work better within a statewide desegregated district (e.g., you wouldn't be spending all your energy trying to turn around institutions which are simply too weak and poor to make it, it would be easier to add charters, easier to do charter/non-charter collaboration, easier to get the best teachers in front of the kids who need them most, etc).

Presumably this would all entail a statewide elected school board.

Probably the most important thing is just having a clearly articulated argument for reform to counter the "it is either this or the status quo" line and show that there are well thought out, evidence and data based alternatives.

So Gentle Reader, any thoughts about who might be willing to back this? It is one topic the union leadership has been willing to broach publicly, but I think not formally.


Sean said...

"In particular, no serious analysis can doubt the death spiral the PPSD faces. Mayor Taveras's mayoral academy proposals would likely suck over $11 million dollars a year out of the district by 2018, and who knows how many more charters will be proposed between now and then."

Source on that $11 million?

RIDE is more generous than lots of state departments in re-routing charter money:

PPSD may die, but not because of Achievement First.

Tom Hoffman said...

The source is the Providence City Council's estimate plus the estimated enrollment from Providence for the Meeting Street mayoral academy, which is supposed to be 85% from Providence (204 plus 654 for AF).

Sean said...

Hmm. I'm deeply skeptical of budget numbers coming from the city council. That $54 million they "saved" from the latest PTU agreement was a joke. Much of it was from not compensating the teachers for the extra 5 minutes.

Much of that $11 million that is sucked out of the district is towards teacher salaries that are no longer necessary because of declined enrollment. In purely abstract terms, the Providence students are getting a bad deal here. Whether you want them taught by AF or PPSD is the real debate.

Tom Hoffman said...

850 students x $14,000 (the current rate) = $11,900,000, so the back of the napkin calculation is pretty easy and reliable.

That's before they start adding the AF middle schools and any other new charters.

The PPSD will still be serving the large majority of students in Providence, and it will be shrinking, facing ever more concentrated poverty, more intrusive requirements from the state and federal government, closing schools, dropping programs and losing capacity indefinitely according to the current path.

Sean said...

City doesn't pay close to the per-pupil amount for students that go to charters (nor should they). Here they have PPSD at $3000 per student:

They pay a discounted rate to the schools and get reimbursed in part by the state. They're not really losing money, either. The money is following the kid who no longer attends a Providence Public School.

As to your other arguments, fair enough. It's a dying district.

Tom Hoffman said...

Of course, the district loses the $14,000 when you count state and federal funding, and districts cannot smoothly scale down as enrollment declines, so even if things eventually stabilize at some lower level, the transition period is difficult and painful for kids as well as adults.