A clear goal was set forth at “Make It Happen,” a statewide conference hosted by the Rhode Island Foundation on Dec. 7 at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence.
In order to create greater opportunities for Rhode Island students and to attract high wage jobs, foundation Chair Neil Steinberg said, “The most important topic [is] the education of our children.”
More than 300 teachers, administrators, local and state officials, students and parents from around the state were asked in breakout sessions to comment on a preliminary report by the foundation’s Long-Term Educational Committee. Comprised of 26 state leaders from a wide range of fields, the committee is charged with building a 10-year plan for pre-kindergarten to 12th grade.
Steinberg presented a path forward for the state to make a substantial investment in education, with a payoff of creating such an attractive workforce that living standards will rise. Massachusetts committed to that approach 25 years ago and now has the best student results in the nation, Steinberg said.
“Massachusetts does not have a better education system because it has a better economy,” he said. “They have a better economy because they have a better education system. The secret sauce of Massachusetts is not smarter kids, but staying the course for 25 years.”
Steinberg emphasized the need to remain committed, accepting that there will be upfront costs, while acknowledging that the fruits of such an investment won’t be evident for years.
Gov. Gina Raimondo, who spoke at the closing of the conference, echoed his projection about the state’s economic future. “There is no one silver bullet. The one thing we can do is improve our workforce to improve our economy,” she said.
Angelica Infante-Green, state commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, spoke of emulating Massachusetts’ success. “We’re not trying to be Massachusetts; we’re trying to beat Massachusetts,” she said.
One concern was meeting the challenge of the state’s rising population of non-white students. Forty three percent of Rhode Island’s public-school population is from minority communities, while only three percent of the teachers and administrators fall into the same category. Many in attendance spoke of the need for minority teachers and administrators, along with difficulty finding candidates.
Infante-Green said one way to improve the experience of nonwhite or economically disadvantaged students is to provide more emotional support to help those children succeed. Without it, she said, the state is educating with “one hand tied behind our back.”
As for disciplinary problems, she said, “Improved instruction will lead to improved behavior. If the kids feel connected and if there is a policy that is consistent throughout the building, there will be mutual respect.”
Raimondo and Infante-Green were both opposed to giving the state more authority over local districts, and they rejected giving the state the power to mandate regionalization.
“That’s something that should happen organically,” Infante Green said.
Raimondo also dismissed changing the basic form of financing education, as some at the conference supported. She said she prefers the existing system of relying on local property taxes along with state assistance, rather than moving to one supported by a larger state income tax.
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