Public Education

I am, first and foremost, a teacher. I've taught American history in many places over the past 27 years, to a huge variety of people: Ivy leaguers, first generation college attendees, community college students of all ages, adult learners, and prospective middle and high school teachers. As an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth I've had the pleasure of working with young people training to become teachers, students who are the first people in their families to attend college, and veterans returning for further education and a new path in life. Since 2005 I've worked with hundreds of adults in New Bedford through the Clemente Course in the Humanities, to help them rediscover their intellectual and academic talents, and get on track to go to college. In March 2015 I was appointed to a three-year term on the Providence School Board by Mayor Jorge Elorza. I believe deeply in the transformative power of lifelong learning, and the absolutely central role that public education has played and must play in the perpetuation of a just and democratic society. Inequality, at the extremes, always poses a danger to a free society. Unequal access to our public institutions, however, poses a mortal threat.

I am well aware of inequitable access to educational opportunity in Providence, in Rhode Island, and in the country as a whole. I've seen it with my own eyes in the public schools of Philadelphia, when I was in graduate school, and I've seen it here in Providence. I wrote a long piece for RI Future in 2012, and racial segregation and inequality the public schools of Providence and Rhode Island. Most of my scholarly work has been dedicated to unpacking the historical origins of racial inequality in our metropolitan areas, and why these patterns persist in the 21st century. These educational inequalities are deeply rooted in the history of race, and in the accumulated effects of past and present housing, banking, education and tax policies. There are very specific reasons, some historical, some current, for why things look the way they do. And they can be unwound. In fact, I think that Providence and Rhode Island could be models for unwinding them, if a movement to do so can emerge.

In Providence and throughout the U.S., urban school systems serve young people from poor families, and young people of color. Housing and schools in our metropolitan areas are deeply segregated by race and class. This segregation perpetuates inequality, and ties how one lives far too closely to where one lives. Starting in the 1930s, decades of federal housing and banking policies exacerbated and expanded existing patterns of racial and economic segregation in our metropolitan areas. Exclusionary zoning laws in suburbia, legal deference to local control of public schools, and the way we generally finance public schools (property taxes) have created a system that generates unequal educational opportunity, while systematically depriving cities and their public schools of adequate resources.

This isn't just a problem for these young people, their families, and their neighborhoods. It's a problem for all of us in Providence. Providence is the primary generator of economic activity in Rhode Island. Metropolitan areas that have more segregation and more inequality have less opportunity, and less social mobility. A state that leaves so many people disconnected from opportunity is a state that will struggle.

At my first School Board meeting in 2015, we voted on the district's annual budget. It occurred to me that night that every adult in the room knew full well that the budget we were approving wasn't even remotely adequate for equitably and effectively educating the public school children of Providence. We did not -- and still do not - have the resources to provide each of them with enriching pre-kindergarten opportunities. We don't have the resources to give them the social-emotional support they need and deserve. We don't have the resources to ensure that our public school buildings are safe, healthy places conducive to teaching and learning. We don't have the resources to reach each individual student in our middle and high schools, and to help them counter the powerful surrounding forces that high poverty and low opportunity neighborhoods exert.

Though our public schools, and many of our young people and their families, face enormous obstacles, we have remarkable people in the Providence Public Schools who do extraordinary work. And we have students and families who demonstrate extraordinary faith in this city, and resilience in the face of poverty, housing challenges, food insecurity, language barriers, prejudice, and the unconscionably high prices one must pay to access higher education. All of these people -- educators, students, and families -- deserve public schools that are adequately resourced, safe, healthy, and hopeful places. I am running for City Council in the hope that I might work with others to help them get schools like this. Providence can and should be a place that people come to for the schools, not leave because of them.

That will require the adults of Providence (and Rhode Island) to think about our priorities. It will probably also require us to make change at the state level. Can we spend our money more efficiently in Providence? Of course. But there is no path that leads from that laudable goal to the broader one of ensuring that all children receive an equitable and effective education, regardless of neighborhood or personal circumstance.

During my time on the Providence School Board I've worked with my colleagues and Superintendent Christopher Maher on racial equity, student empowerment, securing more resources for English Language Learners and student refugees, and shifting resources and authority away from the central office and into the hands of principals and educators. I have supported efforts to make the middle and high school curriculum more culturally responsive, and reflective of the lives and experiences of our students and their families. As chair of the policy committee, I have been a strong advocate of the Board's efforts to move school discipline policies toward restorative justice, and to sever the school-to-prison pipleline. In 2016 I was a vocal opponent of the proposed expansion of the Achievement First charter schools in Providence, because of the devastating impact it will have on the ability of the city to adequately educate the more than 20,000 children who remain in the public school system. I have been an active participant in the state-wide Fix Our Schools Now coalition, a hopeful movement aimed at bringing more resources to bear on the repair and construction of public school buildings that are healthy and safe.

If elected to the Providence City Council, I will:

  • Support overall school quality and improvement, so that every student in every neighborhood can attend a strong public school. This will provide opportunity for our young people, create a strong and prepared workforce, and make our city a more just and prosperous place.
  • Support efforts to create a community-generated "People's Budget" for the Providence public schools -- one which starts from where we want to wind up, not from what 'number' fits this year's city budget projection. When stakeholders throughout the city develop such a budget, it can be used to rally political support for change and more resources, and to put pressure on the School Board, the Mayor, the City Council, RIDE, and the state legislature too. Without this kind of outside pressure on the system at all levels, the default will always be a kind of triage, which focuses in on this program or that program, which faces the budgetary axe. If we want equitable, effective and safe public schools, from pre-k through high school, we need a sense of what that would cost. As a city councilperson, I will work with parents, students, teachers, community activists, non-profits and other stakeholders to build capacity for a 'People's Budget.'
  • Student voice and activism, particularly at the middle and high school level, has been a tremendous blessing for public education in Providence in recent years. The Providence Student Union and other organizations have played a key role in pushing the district toward forms of teaching and curriculum that better reflect who our students and their families are, and push everyone in the district -- especially the adults -- to think hard about institutionalized racism and racial equity. I strongly support this work, and I will be active in moving it forward in our Ward 3 schools and beyond.
  • Focus on helping to make the public school buildings of Providence safe, healthy and hopeful places in which to work and learn. Martin Luther King elementary has repeatedly experienced roof and ceiling leaks, as well as other issues that hamper student learning. Buildings elsewhere in Providence, such as Central and Classical High Schools, are facing many of the same issues. This is unacceptable. Our students and teachers deserve better. I will make this issue a high priority. The City of Providence owns the school buildings. I will work to rally all parts of our public, private and non-profit sector -- and those of other Rhode Island communities facing similar issues -- to change how money is raised, borrowed and spent on schools at the state level. At the same time, as the councilperson from Ward 3, I will zero in on our own public schools: King and Bishop.
  • Work hard to bring more public, private and non-profit resources to bear on the education of our children. I welcome Mayor Elorza's effort to increase the city's contribution to the public schools, and hope it will continue in the years to come, since the district faces a growing deficit. But we must also try to tap available resources from the corporations, foundations, and universities in the city. The school district's 'Rekindle the Dream' Foundation needs to be activated, too.
  • Work to stop the drain on our public schools caused by excessive expansion of charter schools, especially those governed by out-of-state networks like Achievement First. As a member of the Providence School Board I was a vocal opponent of Achievement First expansion, testifying before the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) three times, and ushering a resolution against the expansion through the Board. I am not an ideologue about charter schools. Charter schools have a small role to play, as lab schools to help improve practice in the public schools. But I believe there is no path to equality of educational opportunity that runs through greater expansion of the charter school sector. The focus must be on the public schools in a democracy.
  • Do my best to help the Superintendent, the School Board, and the educators of our city to support safe, effective and culturally responsive public schools in all neighborhoods.
  • Support recent efforts by the Providence Public Schools to expand access to social-emotional learning -- at Nathan Bishop, King, and throughout the district.
  • Support the laudable work of Mayor Elorza and the Providence Public Schools on expanding summer learning opportunities for young people. These programs need to reach strongly into Mt. Hope and other Ward 3 neighborhoods, and to work with community-based institutions.
  • Seek to maintain and expand support for neighborhood community-based organizations that collaborate with the public schools and work with young people, such as the Mt. Hope Learning Center and Everett Theater.
  • Support the efforts of the Providence Talks program to expand access for Mt. Hope families.
  • Work with any available partners in the city and the state to move toward universal access to high quality public pre-K for the children and families of Ward 3, and of Providence. The evidence is overwhelming that attending a quality pre-kindergarten program is good for children, good for their families, and a terrific long-term investment for Providence and Rhode Island. Too often, the ability of families to access pre-k is limited by their income, and the lack of available seats. We can -- and should -- fix this. At the very least, we can work to expand access for families in Mt. Hope and other Ward 3 neighborhoods.
  • Work with the people and elected officials of Providence for changes at the state level in the ways we fund public schools, and pay for the repair and construction of public school buildings. This must include the passage of an amendment to the Rhode Island Constitution creating a judicially enforceable right to an adequate, equitable and meaningful education. It must also include the creation of a dedicated funding source for public education in Rhode Island -- perhaps a portion of the sales tax (Massachusetts does this), or of the income tax.