There are “unusually deep, systemic dysfunctions in PPSD’s [Providence Public School District’s] education system that clearly, and very negatively, impact the opportunities of children in Providence,” wrote Johns Hopkins researchers in summarizing their 60-day study of the school district, which was commissioned by Governor Raimondo in April 2019.
The unsettling report, published in June, calls out issues that span across all levels of education, culminating in a middle and high school culture that is “utterly broken” and academic expectations and rigor that are “exceptionally low.” The range and depth of issues suggest that nothing short of a wholesale redesign of Providence Public Schools will be sufficient to fix deeply-rooted problems such as lead and asbestos, violence and fear, a sense of hopelessness among students and teachers alike, and a level of instruction often far below grade level, with researchers noting that “very little visible learning was going on in the majority of classrooms and schools.”
“The report is devastating for generations of students who have been denied a quality education,” said Governor Raimondo in a press conference following the public release of the report, with promises of collaboration between the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), city officials, the Providence School Board, PPSD, and the community.
And yet in March, a month before commissioning the Johns Hopkins study, Governor Raimondo moved to dismiss A.C. v. Raimondo, the Center for Justice’s ongoing class-action lawsuit protecting students’ right to an adequate education. The Governor’s office argued that:
… while the Plaintiffs [public school students] assert a constitutional right to receive a meaningful opportunity to obtain a civic-based education adequate to prepare them to function productively as civic participants, such a right or opportunity is not “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition, and implicit in the concept of ordered liberty, such that neither liberty nor justice would exist if they were sacrificed.’”
RIDE, through Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green’s predecessor, similarly disclaimed responsibility for the state of Rhode Island’s public schools, claiming that it was enough that the state had “established an ample regulatory framework, as well as necessary guidance, to ensure that civics and social studies are an important part of the curricula in the State’s elementary and secondary schools…” They repeated this argument less than 24 hours after the Johns Hopkins report was released to the public, reasserting in a second brief that the case should be dismissed.
The state continues to argue in A.C. v. Raimondo that questions of instructional quality and curricula “fall squarely within the jurisdiction and authority of local school committees,” in spite of clear findings by the Johns Hopkins team that “[Providence School] Board members were either ill-informed or did not know which kinds of curricula are being used in schools,” that RIDE’s school rating system of rating schools makes it difficult for schools to accept large numbers of English language learners and Special Education students, that the Department regularly issues unfunded mandates that burden schools, and that its pressure to lower suspension rates negatively affects school culture. PPSD teachers and officials interviewed by Johns Hopkins repeatedly complained that city and state officials’ overinvolvement in the day to day operations of the district are a source of the problem.
State-level decision makers continue to contradict themselves in the wake of this report, arguing in A.C. that “[n]o single tradition in public education is more deeply rooted than local control over the operation of schools” and that cities and towns are fully responsible for education, absolving the state of responsibility for any shortcomings. Yet Governor Raimondo has now said that “everything is on the table,” including the state taking a heightened role in Providence schools. Saying the report brought her to tears as both a parent and commissioner, Infante-Green called for stakeholders to “lock arms” and work together to repair the “injustice that’s been happening for decades.”
“The great majority of students are not learning on, or even near, grade level,” researchers determined, with 90 percent of PPSD students failing to reach proficiency in math and 86 percent in English Language Arts, “result[ing] in students’ not being able to read by 5th grade.” The lack of curriculum, academic rigor, safe school environments, and educational consistency results in students who are being denied their fundamental right to an education. If a person is unable to comprehend and interact with texts and ideas on a deeper level, if their education does not provide civic instruction and civic experiences, they are unable to fully exercise both their right and duty to engage in government and public life as an informed citizen, they do not have, as the lawsuit stated, “a meaningful opportunity to obtain an education adequate to prepare them to be capable citizens.”
This week there has been generally expressed agreement that students deserve to be prepared for success. To ignore pleas for civic learning and deny the existence of a fundamental right to education is at odds with efforts to build a school system that creates equitable opportunities to prepare students for citizenship and success.
On July 23, Commissioner Infante-Green announced that the Council of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to approve a state takeover of PPSD. This top-down intervention places the state at the center of every facet of school governance, from repairing decaying buildings to addressing issues of campus climate. Certainly there is little debate that bold action must be taken to improve the Providence schools, and this approach is consistent with the position of the students and parents in the lawsuit in the sense that it is state officials who are now stepping forward to take action. In her announcement of the state’s plan to intervene, Infante-Green described goals of systemic change, such as combating racism, while also planning to play a role in ground-level decisions like the hiring or firing of teachers.
Richard Asinof of Convergence RI addressed the apparent contradiction of the state officials’ response to the lawsuit and their current intervention in Providence in a recent article. The Raimondo administration was called out for playing both sides of the fence when it comes to who’s accountable for fixing Providence schools:
The irony, in case you missed it, goes like this: in court, the Raimondo administration argued that local control of schools is paramount and absolves the state of responsibility for any shortcomings, but in the wake of the new report on the Providence school system, Gov. Raimondo said, “Everything is on the table,” including the state taking a heightened role in Providence schools.
Read more about A.C. v. Raimondo.
“Providence Public School District: A Review,” Johns Hopkins School of Education, June 2019.
“Here’s what top R.I. officials want you to know about the scathing report on Providence schools,” The Boston Globe, June 26, 2019.
“Raimondo: ‘Everything is on the table’ to address Providence school crisis”, The Providence Journal, June 26, 2019.
“5 key takeaways from the scathing report on Providence schools,” The Providence Journal, June 25, 2019.