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Fix-the-system education reform hits a ceiling in Rhode Island

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A FORK IN THE ROAD: Has fix-the-system education reform finally hit the ceiling? Will the school choice option grow further?

By Justin Katz | Watchdog Arena

Although the division between them has not yet hardened into antagonism, there are two branches of the education reform movement.

One seeks to fix the system that is currently in place, with minimally disruptive reforms to make government-run schools more accountable and responsive, prodded through competition from charter schools, over which government maintains a strong hand.  The other favors stronger competition through school choice, with the funds allocated for students’ education being directed by their parents to any schools that they choose.

For the better part of the last decade, Rhode Island has pursued reforms of the fix-the-system variety.  In both its politics and its test results, however, the Ocean State may now be proving that such reforms have a ceiling.

The reforms began in earnest in 2005, under Republican Gov. Donald Carcieri, with the implementation of the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) test and the promise that “proficient” performance on it would soon be a graduation requirement.  In the years that followed, Carcieri staffed the state Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education with strong reform voices, and in 2009, they hired Deborah Gist, a prominent figure in the movement.

Upon taking office, Gist secured a $75 million federal Race to the Top grant and began implementing changes such as a predictable state funding formula, expanded data access and transparency, annual teacher evaluations, enhanced graduation requirements, and, more recently, the federal Common Core standards.

These steps, lauded by center-right reformers, were not welcomed by the education establishment, especially the teachers’ unions.  When the state elected a new governor in 2010, the reforms played a major role, and it was with overwhelming support from the unions that progressive governor Lincoln Chafee won narrowly in a four-way race.

The Chafee administration moved quickly to purge the Board of Regents and to bring Gist to heel.  As the governor told local WPRI reporter Dan McGowan as his single term came to a close last year, “she’s been flexible.”

From the outside, “flexibility” appears to have meant that Gist played nice while the political establishment effectively dismantled key reforms.  The NECAP graduation requirementwas diluted and then postponed until 2020.  Evaluations find fully 98 percentof teachers “effective” or better, although after the first round, two-thirds of administrators admitted in a survey that they had graded teachers more highly than they deserved.  (Thereafter, the survey stopped asking that question.)  Now, the state’s General Assembly has limited annual reviews to the remaining 2 percent.

The latest blow came when the current board of education declined to renew Gist’s contract (although it still has the option to negotiate a new one with her).

Looking at standardized test scores, the effect that the Chafee Era had on education looks very much like a ceiling on fix-the-system reforms.  Averaging the grade levels together, NECAP math scores had improved from 50% “proficient” or better in the 2005-2006 school year to 56% in 2011-2012, but in 2013-2014 they were still at 56 percent.  Reading is more dramatic, climbing from 58 percent at the inauguration of the tests to 73 percent in 2011-2012, with no movement since.

An online application developed by the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity shows a similar picture for National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests.  Combining math and reading tests and grade levels, Rhode Island spent most of the last decade catching up with, and even surpassing, the average state, only to see progress halt between the 2011 test and the 2013 test.

Rhode Island’s experience isn’t without company.  Massachusetts led the way with fix-the-system reforms in 1993 and worked its way to the top of the NAEP charts.  With the teacher-union-favored election of Gov. Deval Patrick in 2006, however, restructuring diluted accountability measures in the state’s reform.  After that year, Massachusetts’s overall NAEP scores haven’t improved.

Florida is another example. After strong education reforms during the turn of the millennium, Florida’s overall NAEP scores climbed to match and then surpass the average state.  But in 2006, opponents successfully sued to stop a real school choice component that would have provided students a way out of failing schools.  The state’s NAEP scores have oscillated around the average line ever since.

Unfortunately, evidence for the other side of the school reform movement is less widely available.  True school choice programs have generally been limited by caps and demographic requirements, and being newer, they haven’t had as much time to produce results. Still, indications are encouraging.

In Florida, for example, the McKay Scholarship Program for disabled students has continued strong growth, and among such students, the state has bucked a national trend of declining NAEP scores.  Florida’s most challenged students have continued their climb.

Washington, D.C., is another example, although it remains well below average in its scores.  The trend line since the federal government implemented the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program has been nothing but up, and closing the gap with the average state.  There was, however, a pause in the improvement during the period that the Obama Administration cut its funding.

Using the Center’s application to average the scores for four states that are leading in school choice initiatives (Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Indiana), plus D.C., shows a less dramatic, but still encouraging upward trend, especially with the most recent round of testing.

Time will tell whether school choice programs will be able to break the political ceiling that seems to have formed over fix-the-system reforms like Rhode Island’s.  In principle, the differing dynamics provide reason for optimism.

School choice opens up opportunities that families had never considered possible. In practical terms, that means that government-ed’s established special interests won’t just be taking on an education commissioner, or even a governor, if they want to stop challenges to their sinecures. They’ll be taking on parents whose children’s education is directly on the line and who exact a much more fundamental system of accountability that can’t be undermined with simple restructuring of government boards and manipulation of evaluation and testing systems.

This article was written by a contributor of Watchdog Arena, Franklin Center’s network of writers, bloggers, and citizen journalists.

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Justin Katz is the research director of the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity and managing editor of OceanStateCurrent.com. Find him on Twitter @JustinKatzRI