Shaking up the school system

The Reformer
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  April 21, 2010

THE REFORMER Gist rejects labels, but seems to be firmly in the camp of free-market reformers like Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

In a state plagued by an often stagnant political culture, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist has proved a startling bolt of energy.

Just 10 months into her tenure, she has won a major charter schools expansion, ratcheted up standards for would-be teachers, and taken control of the troubled Rhode Island School for the Deaf.

In January, the commissioner called out six of the state’s lowest-performing schools and demanded wholesale reform, setting the stage for the headline-grabbing dismissal of the entire staff at Central Falls High School.

And these days, she is pressing the General Assembly for a prize that has eluded reformers for years: a funding formula that would add some equity to a haphazard and often unfair distribution of education aid.

Gist, 43, walks briskly, maintains a packed schedule, and accepts no excuses.

“She’s changed the nature of the game,” says Robert A. Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association-Rhode Island teachers union, which has tangled with the commissioner on a number of occasions. “Significantly.”

But if the shake-up owes much to the quirky determination of a figure who once scaled Mount Kilimanjaro with an Ellen DeGeneres banner in tow, it is also a reflection of a striking moment in education reform.

Eight years after President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law, President Obama has emerged as a neoliberal champion of the market-driven reform movement ushered in by his predecessor.

His education secretary Arne Duncan, originally viewed as a compromise between the free-market camp and the traditionalists aligned with teachers unions, has proven a strong proponent of the market-driven approach.

And the administration’s signature education initiative, the $4.35 billion Race to the Top grants competition, has served as a remarkably effective inducement to change in the cash-strapped hinterland.

In Rhode Island, the prospect of millions in federal aid proved a powerful incentive to raising the cap on charter schools. And it could play a major role in securing passage of the funding formula.

But when Gist won a spot among 16 finalists in the first round of the Race to the Top contest, the coup merely added to a larger sense of momentum around education reform here.

The state school board is eager for action; the departing governor is determined to leave an imprint; the philanthropic community is on board; a group of mayors, led by Cumberland’s Daniel J. McKee, is pursuing a new kind of charter school. Observers say they have never seen the state’s leadership so aligned around education reform.

But for all the momentum, the announcement last month that Rhode Island did not prevail in the first round of the federal dollars chase marked a setback both financial and psychic: the state’s surge into the finalists’ circle had not only stirred visions of some $126 million in federal aid, it had also stoked hopes that Gist’s take-charge style could make a winner of a state that often seems destined to fail.

Instead, critics were left to ruminate on the drawbacks of the uncompromising approach that makes Gist so appealing: the feds rejected Rhode Island’s first-round application, in part, because the commissioner failed to line up significant union support for her plans.

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