Why we need an elected school committee in Providence

How can we stop a treasonous elected mayor and his appointed lackeys from attacking teachers and closing schools?  How can we impose the will of the people on the bureaucrats, in stead of the other way around?  These questions arose in tandem with the reaction of Providence teachers and their supporters to their firing at the hands of Mayor Taveras—a Latino Democrat, no less.  Immediately, two demands came to mind: 1) Recall the Mayor; 2) Recall his school board, and replace it with an elected committee.  At this point, it appears that the Coalition to Defend Public Education will focus its efforts on the latter of the two—and for good reason, as I want to show in this post.  In fact, while recalling the mayor would actually present serious logistical and political difficulties, campaigning for an elected school committee is both achievable and also more broadly useful and important to the movement to stop the attacks on our schools and teachers.

The basis for a campaign for an elected school committee

Classical HS teacher Richard Santurri is a master of parsing legal texts, pinpointing the relevant passages and drawing out the consequences for our activism.  Richard looked up the laws, and it turns out that there are two ways to effect the change we’re seeking.  Both of them require changing the city charter of Providence.  As Richard puts it: “RI Constitution XIII-8 and Providence Charter XIII-1 give the City Council sole power to advance an amendment referendum , so we could offer it to them with cover letter [see Draft.] Else, we could fashion a petition to these ends–Charter XIII-2 demands 3000 signatures by qualified voters of the city just to launch a Commission to review our requested changes.

Fortunately, it appears that the faster process has already started.  It’s common knowledge that a number of City Council members—among them, Narducci, Principe, Luna, Matos, Sánchez, …who else?—were quite unhappy with the process that shut down five schools and is causing havoc in the lives of a few thousand students and hundreds of teachers.  A few members of the Coalition met with Narducci earlier this week, and Richard has drafted an excellent letter to Council President Solomon, outlining the changes in detail.  The one aspect that I’m uncertain of is the notion of six-year terms for School Committee members, which seems a bit long.  In the plan Richard suggests—which I think he himself is quite open to changing—this would mean a rotation where three of the nine seats would be re-elected every two years.  Perhaps this is fine—and replace a third of the committee every two years will be sufficient for us to democratize PPSD governance.  And in any case, this would still mean a school committee NOT controlled by the mayor—a topic I’ll take up in the third section.

The other positive aspect of this is that, provided the City Council does go through with the process of putting the change on the ballot, and provided that the vote on it is this November (admittedly, an off-election year), this would give the CDPE a very concrete goal to work toward—and at a very good time.  The rhythm of teacher union struggles is generally such that things heat up in February and continue through April…or May…or later.  Provided there’s not a strike, the fall is often a quieter time for teacher and public school activism.  This would change that whole dynamic.

Problems of recalling the mayor

There are two main problems.  The first is that, according to the law, a recall of the mayor requires a petition with signatures from 15% of Providence voters, with qualifications about geographic distribution.  As a result, Richard says, “we must not start without secure mobilization: Based on voting registration, more than 7000 signatures (about 500 per ward) by qualified electors of city wards must be obtained within 120 days.”  This would be an incredible task for a couple dozen people to accomplish.  Plus, it would have to wait until July at the earliest—probably not the best time to be pounding the pavement for public schools.

The second problem is a political problem, namely: Taveras is the leader of the establishment of the Democratic Party in Providence.  Now you may debate how many parties our political system actually accounts for—but that number is not more than two. And in Rhode Island, it’s usually really not more than one.  At most, let’s say 1.15: 1 for the Democratic Party, .02 for the Cool Moose Party, .05 for the Chafee party, and let’s say .08 for the Rhode Island Republican Party (though their leaders have been known to go over that limit, quite frequently in fact).  The fact is, even with an independent governor, the Democratic Party sets the terms.

And that’s even more true in Providence itself.  So if we actually got the 7,000 signatures needed to recall Taveras… then what?  Would we campaign for the Republican?  Would we campaign for another, supposedly more liberal Democrat, in the hope that that person would not attack us like Taveras did?  Or would we be ready and able to put up our own candidate?  This last option is the most useful, but also the most difficult—we are as yet a social movement that has not yet laid the basis for its own independent political party.  That tool is necessary in order to really have a shot at stopping the attacks on public education, which come from much deeper sources than simply the personalities on the school board or in City Hall. But it’s also not something we’ve figured out in this country.

The problems of this approach are on display in Wisconsin right now.  In the aftermath of Republican Governor Scott Walker’s attack on collective bargaining rights for public employees, unions are focusing on recall elections—currently of Republican state legislators, and next year of the governor himself.  That’s a fine thing, but it’s limited—precisely because the only alternative to Walker is the Democratic Party candidate.  Let’s remember that the Democrats—and the union leaders—were willing to accept massive economic concessions in the face of a completely artificial budget crisis that Walker himself created as soon as he stepped into office.  Walker wanted both economic concessions and massively curtailed unions; the Dems just wanted the concessions.  How is this a reasonable choice for workers going to the polls?  It highlights the basic point about American politics currently: both Republicans and Democrats agree on austerity and budget cuts.  They simply disagree over how best to implement those cuts.  In the aftermath of the Wisconsin struggle, politicians of both parties went on the offensive against unions—even in “liberal” Massachusetts.

Angel Taveras, like David Cicilline before him, was the darling of Democratic Party-tied liberals who supported him enthusiastically during the campaign, but now speak ill of him for his role in outright union-busting.  They are right to speak ill of him. But what why would anyone ever think that any other Democrat would work differently?  They’re all in one pro-corporate, pro-capitalist party together—and when it comes to supporting big business, Dems are sure to tow the party line.

The broader significance of an elected school committee

Diane Ravitch has some very interesting material on the value of elected school committees in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System.  In brief: an important part of the corporate attack on public education is about taking control of the schools out of the hands of students, parents and teachers.  While Ravitch does not have a separate discussion of this facet of the attack, there are several passages that are germane to the issue, so I’m quoting them here with citations.  The most interesting, in my opinion, is the last one about the Broad Foundation.  One last admonition: if you have not yet read this book, please go find it and read it NOW.  From here, I’ll let Dr. Ravitch’s words speak for themselves.  All quotations are from:

Ravitch, Diane. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

Alan Bersin [superintendent of San Diego Schools from 1999-2005] told me over dinner in San Diego that there was no responsible alternative to swift, top-down reform and that the Blueprint [San Diego’s version of NCLB] had become deeply institutionalized in the San Diego schools.  Brilliant, charming, and self-assured, Bersin said that school-based decision making is a terrible idea, and that elected school boards are obstacles to reform.  He explained that reform could happen in public schools only by pushing hard, without waiting for consensus.  If you wait for consensus, he said, reform won’t happen.  (65)

When Bloomberg ran for mayor, the schools were overseen by a seven-member Board of Education, which was appointed by six different elected officials. Each of the city’s five borough presidents… selected one member of the central board. The remaining two members of the board were appointed by the mayor. Since this arrangement became law in 1969, every mayor had sought to regain the power to select the Board of Education.  For nearly a century prior to 1969, the city’s mayors had appointed every single member of the Board of Education; usually members of the board were distinguished citizens and community leaders. Once appointed, however, the board was an independent agency, and its members had fixed terms and the power to hire the school superintendent and oversee his policies and budget.

Mayor Bloomberg did not want an independent board. He wanted full, direct control of the schools, with no meddlesome board to second-guess him.

In June 2002, the state legislature turned control of the public school system over to Bloomberg, who promptly established the New York City Department of Education (DOE) to manage the schools. The legislation continued a central board of education, while giving the mayor a majority of appointees, who would serve at his pleasure; Bloomberg renamed it the Panel for Educational Policy and made clear that he considered it of no importance. When he introduced the members at a press conference, he said, “They don’t have to speak, and they don’t have to serve.  That’s what ‘serving at the pleasure’ means.”  He sold the Board of Education’s headquarters in Brooklyn to a real estate developer and moved the new department’s headquarters to the Tweed Courthouse, adjacent to his offices at City Hal. Henceforth, the shorthand term for the New York City Department of Education was simply “Tweed”.

Thus, the DOE was housed in a magnificent building that symbolized the infamous Tweed Ring. Moreover, there was this irony: William Marcy Tweed, aka the boss of Tammany Hall, had led the effort to abolish the New York Board of Education in 1871 and turn the school system into a municipal department, making it easier to control and to loot… In 1873, after the Tweed Ring was exposed, the state legislature reestablished an independent Board of Education, appointed by the mayor.  And from 1873 until 1969, the mayor appointed every member of the central board.  (70-71)

The need for checks and balances surely occurred to the state legislature when it changed the legislation in 2002, because it preserved a board of education in the law, giving the mayor the power to appoint eight of its thirteen members, while the borough presidents appointed the other five.  Mayor Bloomberg treated the board as an advisory group whose advice he never sought.  The old Board of Education had been a powerful body, with the power to hire the chancellor, to veto his decisions, and to fire him.  But the new Panel for Educational Policy was a rubber stamp for the mayor and chancellor.

Only on one occasion, in March 2004, did the panel presume to disagree with the mayor, over the issue of social promotion, the practice of promoting children to the next grade even if they have not mastered the skills and knowledge that the need to succeed in the next grade.  When the mayor wanted to end social promotion in third grade, some members of the panel expressed their concern about the hasty adoption of this policy and the lack of planning to help children who were retained; on the day of the vote, the mayor fired two of his appointees and engineered the dismissal of a third, guaranteeing passage of his proposal. The media called that evening the “Monday Night Massacre.” After the meeting, Bloomberg defended his actions. He said, “Mayoral control means mayoral control, thank you very much. They are my representatives, and they are going to vote for things that I believe in.” The members of the panel appointed by the mayor never again objected to any mayoral priority. (78-79)

When mayoral control of the schools was set to expire in 2009, it was parent groups that were most vociferous in seeking limits on the mayor’s power to control the schools. But the mayor lined up overwhelming political support for continuing his control of the public schools, financed in part by millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation. The only group that might have stymied his goal was the United Federation of Teachers. More than 80 percent of its membership expressed strong disapproval of the mayor’s and chancellor’s approach in a poll taken in June 2008. But the union leadership was grateful to the mayor, because we had awarded the teachers a 43 percent salary increase and a generous boost to their pensions. Randi Weingarten, the union’s president, endorsed continuation of mayoral control. Despite the protests of parent groups and objections by state senators largely from minority communities, the state legislature renewed the mayor’s grant of power in 2009. (80)

Mayoral control in New York City had a mixed record.  State test scores went up, and spending went up even faster… With such a huge jump, New York City’s successes may have been a testament to the value of increased school spending. Did mayoral control bring greater accountability? No, because there was no way to hold the mayor or the chancellor accountable. Standing for reelection once every four years is not a sufficient form of accountability for the mayor, especially when there are so many other issues for voters to consider. The chancellor answered only to the mayor, so he could not be held accountable either…

No governance reform alone will solve all the problems of the schools. A poorly constructed governance system, as New York City had during the era of decentralization from 1969 to 2002, can interfere with the provision of education. But absolute control by the mayor is not the answer, either. It solves no problems to exclude parents and the public from important decisions about education policy or to disregard the educators who work with students daily. Public education is a vital institution in our democratic society, and its governance must be democratic, open to public discussion and public participation. (91)

[The Broad Foundation] makes investments, not grants. He invested in Alan Bersin’s tough management approach in San Diego, until Bersin lost his slim majority on the Board of Education. After Bersin was forced out by an elected school board, the Broad Foundation decided that it was risky to invest in cities where there was dissension on the school board; it preferred situations where the leadership had longevity and was insulated from conflict and dissenting voices. He invested heavily in Joel Klein’s reforms in New York City, because mayoral control of the school system ensured stable leadership and minimal interference by constituency groups. Broad liked Klein’s commitment to testing, accountability, merit pay, and charter schools, and the fact that he surrounded himself with other noneducators who had degrees in business, law, and management.

The Broad Foundation invested in Oakland, California, after the state took over its school system in 2003 because of a large budget deficit. The state put a Broad-trained superintendent, Randy Ward, in charge of the Oakland schools. In the view of the foundation, the removal of the locally elected school board created an ideal situation for change, because there was no board to slow or block the rapid imposition of reforms favored by the foundation. The Broad Foundation was betting that the reforms would take root before the elected school board regained control of the district.  (213-214)

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About riredteacher

I'm a foreign language teacher and socialist in Rhode Island.
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5 Responses to Why we need an elected school committee in Providence

  1. While I can agree that an elected school committee gives the semblance of a more “democratic” approach to operating the school system, I do have reservations. First, there are many elected school boards, and they are also attacking teachers, teachers unions, and damaging education. This is because all elected school board members are politicians. Most of them are using these positions as stepping stones to higher offices. Because of this, as politicians, they are concerned with being re-elected or moving on to greener pastures. It is the rare elected official who is willing to “swim against the tide”, jeopardize their position, for the greater good.
    I cannot put my hope in a politician, as so many did with the election of the Providence mayor and the President of the USA! At some point we have to sum up that these guys are not on our side. Consequently, and, respectfully, I believe it will be a great waste of energy and time, and will divert attention away from the fight at hand–rescinding all teacher firings, keeping all schools open, exposing all the enemies of public education, and forcing their hands to do the right thing (which they probably won’t do). Maybe I’m just not aware, but is there an elected school board in R.I.–or anywhere–that is fighting in the interest of public education?
    This isn’t about elected vs. appointed school boards. This is about capitalists, using their politicians, to destroy our unions, privatize our public education, marginalize the poor and people of color in order to sustain a sick and dying system that continues to drive us down into the ground. Use their system when it benefits the people, but never rely on it, endorse it, or worse, get caught up in their tangled webs of phony democracy.
    With comradely respect, Ralph Fortune, retired Providence teacher.

  2. Shaun Joseph says:

    An elected school committee sounds like a great demand for all the reasons you lay out. I would say that a six-year term is too long, even if staggered. It seems to me that this sets up a situation where two-thirds (or whatever fraction) of the committee can be fairly unaccountable, hoping that people will forget things in four to six years.

    Also, I think you might want to consider pursuing the City Council AND the petition options simultaneously. The petition is a way of gauging public support and a good excuse to do aggressive public outreach. It also gives you a line of activity besides the Council, which seems important because the Council doesn’t inspire much confidence, including those who are (ostensibly) on our side.

  3. riredteacher says:

    In response to Ralph: I certainly am not suggesting that an elected school committee is a panacea for all our problems. I work in a suburban school district with an elected SC, and yes, they’re attacking us–the contract offer they gave us was horrific and insulting. The point is not the end result, but rather the movement–here’s a reform we can fight for, and in fighting for it our side gains momentum and puts them on the defensive, in a position where they have to justify their own autocracy, something they can’t do. I also think that even the most rotten elected school board is still more open to pressure from below in a way that an appointed board isn’t. An example: this article from NYC about the concrete experience of fighting school closings (see also the history that I’ve posted above): http://socialistworker.org/2011/05/16/limits-of-democracy-in-nyc It’s notable that there are only two districts in the state that have appointed school boards, and that those are the two places where the attack has been the harshest–Providence and Central Falls.

    Furthermore, as much as you are correct to point out the rottenness of politicians, I do think it’s useful that school committee elections are non-partisan. It means that in voting, people don’t tie themselves to a party, unlike, say, voting for mayor or president or Congress or the GA, etc. That’s also important–tying ourselves to the Democrats has long been an albatross around our necks, as we can see by how many teachers supported Taveras and Obama. We need to develop a party of and for workers in this country, but we’re a long way from it right now. I’m convinced that it will develop first at a national level, not a local level–but it can only develop on the basis of local struggles that reset the terms of the public debate in practice.

    In response to Shaun: you raise some good points, especially thinking about our young meat market councilman. Not quite ready for prime time. I tend to think that two-year terms for all would be better.

  4. Teaching in CF says:

    RI red teacher, I think that you are right about the CF and Providence school boards.

    The composition of the CF board has also changed with little explanation or inquiry. It is only recently that the press has begun to question its composition.

    It would behoove PTU members to watch for this trend in their sc.

  5. Pingback: Why We Need an Elected School Committee in Providence | Rhode Island Red Teacher

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