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Archive for July, 2007

The Finance Committee of the City Council has unanimously approved the plan to fund Nathan Bishop and other schools in Phase 1 of the school reconstruction plan. The full ProJo story can be read here.

Now the issue goes to the full Council at its meeting tonight, July 25.
Please attend this meeting, if you can, to support Nathan Bishop

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Today’s ProJo has a nice article documenting evidence from Vartan Gregorian Elementary on the renewed interest in public schools on the East Side.  In particular, it tells how demand has lead the school to add a third kindergarten for next year.

If there is a theme to the story, it is the importance of parent and community engagement in the public schools. ESPEC Steering Committee members  Karina Wood and Sam Zurier are quoted.  Some snippets are below, and the full article is here.

Christy Chase, the parent of two boys at Gregorian and a member of the Parent Teacher Organization, says she has seen “a tidal wave of change” over the past couple of years.

“When James was first going in, people looked at me like I had two heads,” Chase said. “Now, there is definitely a sense of people dying to get their kids into Gregorian, people who want to send their kids to a public school.” ……

“Vartan Gregorian is a clear example of how the public has made a decision to come back to public education,” said Gary Moroch, the executive director of elementary schools. “They have been very vocal about adding another kindergarten class, and they do their own recruiting.”…….

Wood thinks Gregorian is filling an unmet need on the East Side.

“The East Side is always going to have a certain number of affluent people,” she said. “But we don’t have the money to send our children to private school. We’re part of that big block of people in the middle. We’d love to use the public schools but we’re cautious about quality.”

Parents say Gregorian is appealing for a number of reasons: the school is small, the teachers are committed to their craft, and parents are welcome in the building. Vartan Gregorian also offers something that most private schools don’t: diversity. The school is evenly split among black, white and Latino students.

“I wanted my children to go to a school where they would be with kids who looked different so they could be in the real world,” said Wood, who has a second grader and a kindergartner at Vartan. “I also wanted a school with high-quality teachers, and I found that at Gregorian.”
As Zurier, the former School Board member, wrote recently in the East Side Monthly: “Gregorian’s success, and the response it has triggered among parents living on the East Side, provides tangible proof that if the city builds good schools, we will come.”

Zurier said he hoped that Gregorian’s success would ultimately lead to the rediscovery of the Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, on Camp Street, which already has a strong following.

In fact, the Parent Teacher Organizations from Gregorian and King are already talking about sharing resources, including information on fundraising and enrichment activities, and possibly collaborating on a school handbook.

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Friday’s ProJo has an Op-Ed piece by Mayor Cicilline, proposing a task force to make recommendations for the state on deficit reduction, fiscal responsibility, state government modernization, and tax reduction. The piece notes that “a five-year strategic financial plan, along with discipline, have had a major impact in Providence. Since 2004, the rate of city budget growth has been half of the state’s and less than the Consumer Price Index. This despite our having absorbed a great share of education costs in each of the last four years.”

The Op-Ed has been posted to the RI Future blog, so instead of reprinting it all here, I’ll just give you this link to the piece and provide a few quotes as regard education specifically. State policy, the Mayor says, has been a “freeze and squeeze”:

Freeze income tax, sales tax, corporate tax and fees and then put the squeeze on cities and towns by shifting a greater share of education costs to them, imposing a cap on local spending, and imposing costly mandates on local communities. The stated goal of this is to lower property taxes. If that were ever achieved, the thinking goes, the quality of life in our cities and towns would improve and the economy would take off.

It may sound good but it has failed in practice, and that’s what matters. Despite claims made for the efficacy of cutting taxes, the state policy of shifting costs to local governments and imposing costly mandates has resulted in annual property-tax increases in nearly every city and town.

The Task Force the Mayor envisions would:

Create a plan to provide a sustainable funding system for the world’s best schools. Two independent studies have shown that the state must increase funding to reach its own high education standards. We have a stark choice between increased funding and lower standards. A global economy makes that choice for us. A real plan to adopt an equitable and fair school-funding formula is an absolute necessity.

Restructure the tax system to eliminate reliance on the property tax. Rhode Island relies more heavily on property taxes to pay for schools than somewhere between 45 and 48 states, depending on who you ask. This is step one in any sound tax policy.

Note that today, RIPEC came out with a report on tax policy in RI, showing that we have the 6th highest property tax burden in the nation.  Notably, on revenue from all sources (property tax, income tax, sales tax & fees) we are 26th.

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Our focus here has been on Providence, but I thought it would be useful to share reports of the effects of the recent education funding freeze on other parts of the state. I think this shows that Providence and other municipalities are, in many ways, in the same boat:

COVENTRY – Class sizes will get larger and less support staff will be available to classes in the Coventry school district as it finds ways to balance its budget after the General Assembly voted to level fund state education aid, school officials said.

When the school department created its 2007-2008 Fiscal Year budget, it factored in a 3 percent increase in state aid the governor proposed in his budget.

According to School Committee Chairman Raymond E. Spear, the Coventry School Department did not consider receiving less than the governor proposed because, in past years, it always received what the governor proposed or more.

However, with the state facing a deficit of more than $400 million, the General Assembly voted to level fund state education aid. This left the Coventry School Department $600,000 short in its budget.

You can read the rest of the story in the Kent County Daily Time webpage

Meanwhile, the Anchor Rising blog is reporting on a group of mayors from various towns (Including Mayors McKee of Cumberland and Avedisian of Warwick) have gathered to find responses to the budget freeze:

McKee and Avedisian talked about how it’s just getting harder for local municipalities to fund education. The cities and towns keep hearing from the various state-level entities that change is coming, but no change has come. They can’t wait on the State anymore, nor can they necessarily trust it. For instance, Avedisian talked about the inventory tax phase out meant to help business. But part of the deal was that the state would help the cities and towns by alleviating some of the lost revenue. They stopped the payments three years in and haven’t resumed them…..

The plan is to hire a non-partisan group that will produce a position paper in September and to follow that up with a report from another group that will lay out its recommendations in early 2008.

 

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[Followup:  The Council authorized exploring this suit]

Today’s Projo reports that the City Council will consider retaining counsel to explore a lawsuit against the state to force adequate levels of education funding. Read the story here.

The RI Constitution provides that the General Assembly has a duty to promote education:

RI Constitution, ART XII: Duty of general assembly to promote schools and libraries. — The diffusion of knowledge, as well as of virtue among the people, being essential to the preservation of their rights and liberties, it shall be the duty of the general assembly to promote public schools and public libraries, and to adopt all means which it may deem necessary and proper to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education and public library services.

However, the state Supreme Court ruled in 1993 1995 that the level of funding that the state provides is totally up to the discretion of the legislature, and the Courts have no say in the matter, and no power to enforce the state’s constitutional duty. That made RI one of only 5 states whose Supreme Courts have said that they have no role in interpreting the state constitution’s education clause.

The Court also held that there is no violation of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause if those levels are unequal across districts.

Nonetheless, a second suit might be effective at this time. For one thing, the Court’s equal protection analysis was based on funding figures for the 1989-1990 school year. If the facts that the ruling was based on have change, the ruling itself might do so as well. Recently, the state’s share of education funding has actually shrunk, while reliance on local taxes has increased.

Second, the legal landscape has changed. When the RI Court ruled in 1993, it was the beginning of a period in which state education funding systems were being challenged. At that time, only twelve state courts had overturned school funding systems similar to Rhode Island’s. By 2004, 13 more states had done so, bringing the total to 25. More suits have been filed since then. The State Supreme Court in 1993 might not have felt prepared to step out ahead of the curve. Fourteen years later, it might not want to be left behind of a wave of change that has swept much the nation.

It should be noted that this is not just about Providence alone. The suit, if filed, would be about creating adequate, predictable and rational funding for all of RI’s communities. I would expect that the suit would be filed, as in 1993, by a coalition of cities and towns.

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