School Choice Is the Lasting Solution Only with Local Control

I’m glad to see I’m not the only person with concerns about top-down education reform in Rhode Island. Here’s Bill Felkner, executive director of the Ocean State Policy Research Institute:

[Education Commissioner Deborah] Gist is wresting power from the unions and implementing reforms through the state Department of Education, such as the no-bumping rule. In Cumberland, meanwhile, [Mayor Dan] McKee is taking power away from the school committee and enhancing the role of the mayor.
In both instances, the intent is laudable, but what happens if an anti-reform mayor is elected in Cumberland, or a new commissioner takes office at the state level, one less inclined to do battle with the unions?
Either way, control is just being shifted from one governmental entity to another — from the school committees to the mayor, or from public teacher unions to the education commissioner and the superintendents.

The danger is a bit more acute than that. In both cases, power is moving farther from accountability. In the case of a mayor, accountability is still local, but education becomes muddled in with every other issue the town faces. With the mayor running the show, voters no longer have an elected position that’s directly and solely responsible for education. That could dilute the opportunities for grassroots action while increasing the opportunity for special interests to stitch together coalitions.
In the case of the commissioner, power has moved not only away from local hands, but also to the hands of an unelected bureaucrat. Should Commissioner Gist be replaced with somebody interested in serving an entirely different constituency (if you know what I mean), voters’ recourse is through the governor’s office, where education becomes even more diluted as an issue for the grassroots and special interests have the full state tableau of special interests in which to make alliances that are unhealthy for the state. In other words, it’s what we have now, but with unions’ focus honed in on the more powerful, more centralized focus of power.
This consideration becomes even more significant when one takes into account that Bill’s (correct) solution, more broadly, is the parental control inherent in school choice. The power of such freedom diminishes as the controlling authority, for schools, spreads out to a broader array of the choices that parents have. The unions might not mind the idea that parents can send their children anywhere when all of the significant decisions related to taxation and school management are controllable at the state level.

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13 years ago

Justin, you’re partially right on the Cumberland situation. I agree with not having an elected school committee, but the part that I need to check if Cumberland is doing is not giving the mayor full control, but spreading it out with the town council. Cumberland is currently undergoing a charter review and many ideas are being bounced around. My ideas submitted, which I learned are not legal by state law would have been to either a) create a school budget committee comprised of 3 SC members, 3 TC members and the mayor. Only that committee could negotiate any contracts or commit to spending. Idea b) was to dissolve the school committee completely, add 3 members to the town council and create a school sub-committee within the town council. Both ideas are illegal according to RI state law. So what the Charter Commission is looking to do instead is to make the school committee not elected but appointed. The last I heard is that the whole committee would be appointed by the mayor. This is the part that I disagree with because of the point you raised. What if Cumberland elects a total bonehead mayor and fills it with 7 people with conflicts of interest. Many people in Cumberland are very impressed with and happy with Mayor McKee right now, but he sure isn’t going to be Mayor forever. Someone else will replace him some day. So what I’m hoping the Charter Commission will do instead is to spread out the power a little and give each of the Town Council members one nominee to the school committee (that’s 7), and then do one of two things with the mayor, either give him one nominee, but his nominee is the chair of the school committee and doesn’t vote, or give the… Read more »

13 years ago

I see what you’re saying, and you make coherent arguments. But look at what the current system has given us. The more local the election, the easier it is for a special interest group like a public sector union to throw it in their favor through their campaigning.

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