RISC Summer Meeting
So I’ve taken up the invitation to sit at the Press table provided by the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition for its summer meeting (at the Hyatt on Goat Island in Newport — reasoning that it’s a way to get a good seat up front without having to sit next to VIPs and speakers. Actually, inasmuch as the program is scheduled to begin at any moment and I’m the only person at the table, it also provides a good position from which to catch audio with a minimum of table shaking and glass clinking. The room is a little smaller than the one down the hall in which RISC held its winter meeting, but once the crowd in the hall filters in, it looks like attendance will prove healthy.
I’ve been joined at the Press table by Julia Steiny from the Providence Journal, although she slipped away from the table before I had an opportunity to introduce myself. Otherwise, the crowd consists of many familiar faces, including Governor Carcieri, who’s making the rounds.
RISC Chairman Harry Staley is giving the opening speech, introducing the new member group from Woonsocket, making a plea for more involvement, and so on.
The Providence Journal’s Neil Downing has joined me at the Press table. I do wonder: as an ethical matter, should I take off the “I’ve joined the R.I. Revolt!” sticker on my shirt, given my seating?
RISC Vice President & Secretary Harriet Lloyd officially unveiled the new RISC Web site, through which 7,000 emails have already been sent to legislators. RISC President James Beale ran through some official business that the group’s bylaws require. And Board of Regents member Angus Davis is filling in for that group’s chairman, Robert Flanders, who was unable to make it here for his speech.
Davis shared the anecdote of a two-time teacher of the year in Providence who, due to bumping, was also a two-time layoff victim.
I’ve been having some technology glitches while Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist has been speaking. She began by saying that the number 1 question that people ask her is: “Why did you come here.” She says that she came here “to make a difference.” (Of course, I’m sure the unprecedented paycheck had something to do with it.)
“The students across Rhode Island have to be achieving at higher levels.”
On economic and racial levels, “we have some of some of the highest achievement gaps in the country,” which she says is a violation of their civil rights. I wonder how the progressive NEA feels about that.
“We’re the ninth highest in state investment in education.”
“The most important factor in a child’s education is the quality of the teacher.”
Mentioned bumping. Suggested more evaluation of everybody, from her right down to teachers.
“We have brought [the teachers] into this broken system.”
She did not, however, use the “U” word. “There are models” for improving children’s performance. Somehow she’s gotten around to talking about world class teachers in excellent schools. The only time she’s coming close to using specifics is to talk about “using data effectively,” although she’s not giving examples about what sort of data she means.
“We need a funding formula for Rhode Island schools.” She said that we need money to “follow the child,” but she didn’t suggest anything that would define that beyond a bland talking point.
Consolidation… food, transportation, blah, blah, blah.
“Some people [around Rhode Island] are a little discouraged.” You may have picked up on the fact that this is not the speech that I was hoping to hear.
She’s done, and people are giving her a standing ovation, but I’m really not sure why.
Next up, Jordan Forbes, Federal Government Affairs Manager of the National Taxpayers Union.
“Tax incentives are great, but do nothing for long-term tax policies.”
Rhode Island “is in a good position,” given its location and natural attributes. She recommends Heritage Foundation principles:
1. Not all tax cuts are created equal: they must improve incentives to work, invest, and save.
2. The change in tax rate matters, not the size of the cut.
3. Consumer spending is a consequence of growth, not a cause of growth.
4. Long-term tax policy is the best short-term stimulus.
Governor Carcieri has, as ever, offered to speak (as I promised Neil Downing he would).
The one reason the governor’s tax plan (which the previous speaker lauded) didn’t come to be was that we just didn’t have enough people in the statehouse who believed in its benefits.
“I’ve got a year and a half left, and I’m not stopping on this one.”
At last: the governor introduced the “U” word to the conversation, in the context of the forces against which RISC must stand as a “countervailing force.”
Governor Carcieri pointed out East Providence School Committee Chairman Anthony Carcieri and noted that the difficult things they’re going through in that town are necessary for the changes that have to happen.
Regarding the budget: “The reality is that we did pretty well on this budget.” Although, the General Assembly gave the executive branch a $70 million “lump” to find.
Not surprisingly, the governor predicts that the unions will lose their pension-related lawsuit.
He mentioned that the flat-tax remained, but that the capital gains tax cuts fell away. He expressed hope that Massachusetts shoppers will begin coming to Rhode Island thanks to a 25% increase in their sales tax. (Of course, they’re still lower than Rhode Island’s.)
We’ll be seeing in the next few weeks that the $70 million “lump” is going to have to come from state employees in some way.
“I think we should have a defined contribution [retirement] program for new hires.”
“The 39 cities and towns are spending over $3 billion per year — 50% more than the state.”
“The vast majority of the spending of the state is actually being done by the cities and towns.”
I see no indication on Ms. Gist’s face that she understands that the majority of that money goes to the schools, and the majority of that money is allocated to union teachers.
The consequence, according to the governor, is that further cuts are going to have to come from cities and towns. One possibility is consolidation, citing Aquidneck Island.
Although he’s emphasized that the state government did not raise broad-based taxes, he hasn’t noted that RI government spending increased some 12%.
Indoor prostitution loophole is a “black eye” for the state. “I know it’s the ACLU.”
“Good news: wind power.”
As an aside, the long-running litany of accomplishment that the governor, as a political leader, runs through with each speech belie the trouble that this state is actually in. My impression of this meeting, so far, is that there still is nowhere near the necessary heat and ire (not a typo) necessary.
For example, the governor just said: “We’re pushing a boulder up hill. The good news: it’s moving. The bad news: you can’t stop pushing or that baby rolls back downhill.”
Wrong. We’re mildly slowing the descent. It’s not enough. We have to turn things around.
Another standing ovation.
The Q&A moves along:
Bruce Lang: “There’s not a business in America that could afford the sorts of fringe benefits that public employees get.”
“How do we win this battle?”
My muttered answer: We don’t. We’re going under. Then we have to build up again.
The governor’s answer. We need the counterbalancing voice to the unions, which (again) he states is acting in an understandable self-interest.
“Shame on us if we can’t figure out how to get more votes, because that’s the only way we’re going to win.
Brian Bishop of Ocean State Policy Research Institute disliked the mention of racial balancing from Ms. Gist. She stated disagreement, but I might not be alone in having missed something in Brian’s question.
Sue Story just expressed dismay at the possibility of binding arbitration for teachers. RISC’s Jim Beale stated that RISC has radio ads against such a thing ready to go whenever the General Assembly reconvenes.
Steve Santos of the East Providence School Committee seconded the opposition to that sort of legislation. Beale thinks the RI Senate has heard the message. I think we’ve moved to talking about the legislation to maintain contract terms before renegotiation.
Best line of the meeting comes from Harry Staley. On the topic of folks who might be thinking about running for state office: “If you don’t think you’re qualified, spend a day up there.” Then he qualified: “Present company excluded, of course.”
A question about controlling school district fiefdoms didn’t elicit an exciting answer from Deborah Gist. She said that her authority comes mainly from results, as when a district isn’t performing adequately. Again “data” and “models” made an appearance in the response.
Anthony Carcieri is asking how Ms. Gist intends to implement “pay for performance” in Rhode Island.
“I think it’s really important that we recognize our excellent teachers.” “This is another of those really complicated issues.” She’s going to make sure we have goals and that there will be some connection between remuneration and student results.
Anthony Carcieri: “What about contracts in reference to that.”
Gist: “That’s where it starts to get complicated.” The state’s policies must actually be implemented at the local level.
It occurs to me that the state could increase the bind on districts and towns to force them to make big — and public — decisions on which voters can pass judgment. The Ed Commissioner could also use the bully pulpit… say to oppose the Caruolo Act. (Yeah, I know, crazy talk.)
Here’s hoping it was the freezing temperature at which the hotel keeps this room that made my “R.I. Revolt” sticker fall off a few moments ago.
And the meeting comes to a close.