Destruction of Public Education in Providence

“It’s a Crisis” Says Raimondo of Providence Schools; One of the Worst School Systems in U.S -GoLocalProv Headline, 2019

“Be honest and realistic. Don’t try to sugarcoat the issue or pretend the problem is smaller than it is, because if you do that, then people are going to get hurt. Someday, sometime, a person is not going to get their pension check, or they’ll have cuts to other services.” -Raimondo in 2014 on a purported pension crisis that was in fact just a Wall Street-sponsored fraud from Day 1

Someday, after the operatic cycle of Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo’s political career has reached its concluding note, it will be a masterpiece of neoliberal assault upon the public sector, the commons, and the fabric of the welfare state in America to behold. It is absolutely essential, in order for the faculty and the students of Providence to fight back and win in this contest, to form a broad-based coalition that is centered on the success of students and dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline.

Right now, a multi-year media narrative, assembled by allegedly-liberal local news outlets, is being utilized in order to justify the anti-democratic takeover of public education. (I will offer a further analysis of this narrative in a future report that time and space bars me from providing here.)

Motivation stems a number of reasons, including because the Providence Teachers Union is one of the largest white collar educator unions in the state and its majority composition is white women, meaning success would have a ripple effect for female workers statewide; the PTU benefits and salary package is one of the most robust offerings in the entire state economy and serves as a useful high watermark for all female service and public sector economy workers, especially with paid maternity leave. Whereas suburban teacher unions play a peripheral role in the respective municipal political debates, Providence Teachers Union is a major force in statewide politics. Simultaneously, another front of this attack can be found in the halls of the Community College of Rhode Island, where Raimondo seeks to crush the unionized faculty owing to its large membership, the subject of a future report.

As a member-organizer of the Providence chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), I have been engaged in organizing white people to oppose white supremacy in realms including public education and can testify that we try to create a space for people like members of the Providence Teachers Union (PTU) as well as retirees to engage in this kind of solidarity work. None of the following statements should be construed to represent opinions or positions of the Providence SURJ chapter, instead I would say that they are merely my own and I believe in them because I have seen repeatedly that SURJ is a genuine and viable conduit for this solidarity work that few other majority-European membership groups in the Ocean State are capable of.

It will require a neoclassical Homer or Virgil to account for this epic, a project that I claim with no hyperbole will be one that impacts not just the tiny Ocean State but the entire United States, not unlike how Bill Clinton’s gubernatorial career in tiny Little Rock ended up being the launch pad that led to neoliberal consolidation within the Democratic Party and completed the purge of the New Deal/Great Society Keynesians from within its ranks. As with The Iliad or The Aenid, let us begin in media res.

Right now, Providence Public School Department is being taken over by the state and the state’s newly-appointed (by Raimondo) Education Commissioner Angélica M. Infante-Green, an alumnus of the Jeb Bush education privatization project Chiefs for Change, which has seen in the past decade a revolving door installed into various Ed offices in RI. Interim Superintendent Fran Gallo, who has a history in the district, seems to occupy a rubber-stamp position. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has recently moved to defund all other charter schools in the city so to move the money into his own personal project, the Achievement First Mayoral Academy, not unlike several other patterns of funding we have seen locally over the years whereupon the independent charters serve the purpose of creating good PR until they are defunded to make room for the big-box corporate players. Achievement First has a national reputation for abominable student abuses and their opaque, unaccountable budgetary processes pertaining to per-pupil expenditures have a distinct and negative impact on special needs and English Language Learner students both inside their charters and outside in the remaining non-privatized schools.

Former City Councilor Sam Zurier wrote the following about the Achievement First Expansion [1]:

In its Aug. 20 editorial (“Students must come first now”), The Providence Journal argued that Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s decision to link his support of the expansion of Achievement First charter school to a reduction of an equivalent number of seats in a lower-performing charter school is “unjust to students trapped in traditional schools.” To the contrary, the mayor’s position protects the 22,000 children in the Providence Public Schools from the cruel arithmetic of the state’s funding formula, which requires the host community to pay the charter school its average local per-student allocation (roughly $5,000) to supplement the state’s aid per child. Because the host district’s marginal cost to educate an additional child is lower than the average cost, and because these transfers create other inefficiencies and discontinuities, the net cost is significant. For example, a 2012 Providence City Council report estimated that the first Achievement First Providence Mayoral Academy would result in a net loss of up to $8.7 million annually to the Providence Public Schools, even after accounting for savings resulting from the decline in enrollment. In other words, the education benefit gained by the estimated 654 Providence students projected to attend Achievement First would be offset by an almost $400 per student net loss in the funds available to educate the 22,000 children who remained in the Providence Public Schools. The editorial downplays this fiscal stress, stating it would merely “necessitate layoffs or restructuring that would offend powerful interests.” In fact, the layoffs and restructuring would compromise the quality of the education the Providence Public Schools can provide to its children not attending Achievement First.

The Journal editorial byline has for years now been little more than the pen name for one Edward Achorn, whose wife is herself a charter school industrial player, which, in journalism terminology, is defined as a conflict of interest. [2]

Zurier, a good man on these matters, has previously written an important report while in City Council that demonstrated the Achievement First expansion would “break” the Providence Public School District. In other words, for Raimondo to call the situation in the school district a crisis when she has been directly responsible for intentional moves to under-fund and over-extend the resources of the school department is basically akin to an arsonist raising a fire alarm and then playing innocent with the inspectors.

Earlier this summer, John Hopkins University Institute for Education Policy [3] released a report that claimed the Providence school district was the worst that it had ever offered analysis on, going as far as claiming that its analysts walked out of some school buildings in tears. However, there were several dimensions to the report that merit discussion.

First, the examination by Hopkins was done at the end of the school year, when students are basically done with anything except their bustling spring fever. Eighth grade and twelfth grade students know what their destination for next September is, meaning they are on autopilot and more interested in social engagements than the final chapter of their social studies book.

Second, the comments made by the Mayor in the report’s interview rather tellingly failed to indicate that his charter schools have been responsible for demonstrable harm to the school district. His staged, faux-foreboding tone masks the identity of a malicious actor who has done tremendous harms to teachers, students, and families.

Third, the report failed to articulate that facilities are overwhelmed because of school closures during prior Mayoral administrations that Elorza has no interest in reversing (indeed, Elorza’s charter school occupies a building that previously was a public middle school, Perry Middle School!)

Fourth, the report had a distinct and clear anti-labor bias, citing the PTU’s collective bargaining agreement as a cause of many problems. I certainly accede that American business unionism has its hindrances (and in fact have written about them here at Counterpunch several times) but Hopkins wrote a union-busting advocacy document, plain and simple. And in Rhode Island, where the educator unions have also expanded to include predominantly-BIPOC worker professions, such as public sector service positions that do not require a college degree (food service, public building custodians, etc.), we need to see the racist nuance of this report’s suggestions. Though it is passed off as an attack on white college graduate women, it instead will impact a much wider group. Recall that the public sector is the largest employer of African Americans, the public sector is the largest percentage of our overall nationwide union density, and that African American women are the largest membership cohort of the AFL-CIO. Hopkins chose a union that is vulnerable to accusations of class and racial discrimination in order to stab a spear at workers of a much more diverse character.

Folks with all kinds of access to City Hall repeat the same thing to me, Elorza’s leadership is a textbook example of “there is no ‘there’ there.” He can strike a good pose for the cameras and play his cards well as a son of Latinx immigrants but has done next to nothing in Trump time to defend people from ICE raids or the wider BIPOC community from police brutality.

This naïve expectation for Elorza is misguided. It isn’t that this is an unintentional dearth. Instead, he is a very cynical, clever stage performer who puts on a great show with his left hand, playing the neoliberal identity burlesque, while using his right hand to intentionally do nothing except the bidding of Gina Raimondo. There are two elements to explain this.

First, the Machiavellian angle. Raimondo is very obviously angling for higher office, perhaps the Senate seat of Jack Reed. Elorza is looking to slide into the Governor’s office. That’s not too far-fetched, particularly when the Rhode Island GOP consistently has fielded arch reactionaries in the past several cycles that break with the liberal Rockefeller Republican mold that defined GOP Governors in the 20th century.

Now the more financial side. Raimondo ascended to her political position by starting out as the first woman elected Treasurer of Rhode Island. With a heavy war chest funded by the hedge fund industry, particularly Paul Tudor Jones, as well as Enron alum John Arnold, she walked into Treasury and saw the writing on the wall.

The Rhode Island Democratic Party was influenced since World War II by the diktats of ethnic Catholicism, with attendant anti-Communism, corruption, and conservatism. Treasury for decades had been run as little more than a bail-out fund for the state and its multiple ridiculous schemes, including failed real estate deals and other pay-offs that clearly violated the responsibility of not just a fiduciary but probably every sane child with a piggy bank.

With this in mind, Raimondo invested the state pension fund (which includes public school teacher contributions) into the hedge funds that in turn finance charter schools (Paul Tudor Jones’s Robin Hood Foundation finances Achievement First) [4], meaning that Providence teachers still to this day see a payroll deduction on their pay stub that finances the literal busting of their own union!

She was aided in this by donor John Arnold, who foisted upon the public, via the Pew Charitable Trust, a phony pension crisis narrative in the media [5] that was picked up by perceived non-partisan outlets like PBS. Raimondo is a pro at manufacturing a crisis to attack organized labor and this recent stab at PTU and Providence public schools bears striking resemblance to the pension heist of 2011. [6]

Karl and Fred wouldn’t dare dream that up!

As such Elorza and Raimondo both have run for reelection campaigns with Wall Street war chests, preparing for the past 4.5 years to initiate the demolition of the Providence public schools. As one of the largest school districts in the state, privatized education would be a cash cow for the various corporate entities that seek to profiteer off the untapped market.

Currently students in Providence are organized alongside their families to try to have a voice in the state takeover of their schools, something Commissioner Infante-Green opposes. [7] Simultaneously, the teachers union is poised to fight. Both groups will only find success in a broad united front that places at the center of the struggle solidarity with workers as members of the Providence community and the students whom they serve.

But to do this, certain challenges must be overcome, including the long legacy of structural racism and white supremacy writ large into the Rhode Island social contract. Since World War II, the white middle class has commuted out of the city to the adjoining suburbs while BIPOC families were redlined into an urban core where public utilities and services were left to crumble and rot. It hurts for so-called white people to encounter and own their participation in and benefit from structural white supremacy that has done demonstrable and manifest harm to BIPOC populations in the urban core, particularly when such an indictment includes their own parents and when those harmed include your own students. (One need only play Paul Robeson’s magisterial rendition of Shenandoah to witness my transfiguration into the Fontana di Trevi…)

But when the future of your job and the jobs of your children are at stake, how much are you willing to fight for? Consider attending a public meeting of SURJ to find out how you can plug into the fight! [8]










Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.