Warning to Dan Yorke: Be Wary of the Regionalizers
Dan Yorke of WPRO radio (630 AM) had Senate Finance Committee Chairman Stephen Alves (D-West Warwick) on his show yesterday to discuss the Rhode Island budget shortfall. As part of a long-term plan for bringing fiscal stability to the state, Senator Alves proposed regionalizing Rhode Island’s school districts into 5 county-level school systems. Now, maybe I’m making too much of one example, but when the Senator mentioned that East Greenwich residents might have to get used to sending their kids to schools in West Warwick as part of his plan, I think he provided an unintended insight into what he believes the real benefits of regionalization to be.
Senator Alves’ example, after all, seems to have things backwards. Someone thinking rationally about maximizing the state’s education resources should be developing ways to move students in the direction opposite of the Senator’s suggestion, from the troubled school system, to the better one. But moving East Greenwich students to West Warwick does make sense if you assume that providing the best education possible to Kent County students is less of a priority than finding new sources of revenue (namely East Greenwich’s property tax money) that can be used by West Warwick, regardless of how wisely the money is spent. This, sadly, would be Rhode Island politics-as-usual, where budget debates have long focused on delivering new monies to municipal education and social welfare bureaucracies that have maxed out their existing revenue sources and are demanding “more”. School regionalization will become an extension of the same old battle over a stagnant or shrinking pie, unless it can be carried out with some creativity.
So here’s some creativity. If statewide regionalization is to occur in Rhode Island, it should, at a minimum, be coupled with open choice within the public system, where parents can send their children to a public school they choose, and funding is allocated to a particular school based on the number of students that choose to go there. In other words, if Kent County gets regionalized, let parents, and not Stephen Alves, choose whether their children go to school in East Greenwich or West Warwick. And some real creative stuff, like vouchers, public scholarships and increased use of charters, should be considered too. This kind of open choice, more so than a regionalization plan, is the funding formula that will improve the quality of education in Rhode Island in a fiscally responsible manner.