Dear Roger Williams University: Tax The Rich And Pay Your Share!

On July 19, 2020, The Providence Journal published an opinion piece authored by Marcela Betancur of Roger Williams University (RWU) that advocated for a policy agenda that synchronizes with the anti-union orientation of Gov. Gina Raimondo and Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green. The Governor’s entire political career has been financed by the hedge fund sector of Wall Street that backs the demolition of public sector pensions and union-busting charter schools, exemplified by individual donors such as Paul Tudor Jones and Enron alum John Arnold. The Journal is a longtime bastion of anti-labor sentiment. It also is now even more limited as a forum for respondent Letters to the Editor, saying they “welcome letters, and greatly favor those 150 words or less.”As such, I submit my response to Counterpunch in hope of gaining a full venue for an important rebuttal.

There’s an old saying about the only certainties of life being death and taxes and that aphorism certainly applies to inequalities in Providence Public Schools.

In her opinion piece (“My Turn: Marcela Betancur: Fix Providence schools to address racial inequality”, July 19 2020), [1] Marcela Betancur, executive director of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University, jumps to some rather contradictory conclusions whilst claiming solidarity on behalf of her employer with BIPOC protesters struggling for important, vital changes to our society and the nature of Rhode Island’s social contract.

First, RWU makes claims of “a national campaign to recruit more teachers of color, while also working with our colleges and universities to develop a better pipeline of diverse graduates from our state’s teacher education programs.” As a graduate of Rhode Island College currently studying for their teaching certification, I know intimately the hoops and hurdles requisite attaining just enrollment in a teacher training program. Tuition, books, dormitory fees, and income to sustain the student are just the tip of an iceberg that can only be substantially challenged by one thing: low-tuition/tuition-free public college education financed by increased taxes on the wealthy or, alternatively, a substantial teacher training scholarship fund that goes beyond mere philanthropic gestures into the realm of taxpayer-financed civic infrastructure.

I find it mysterious, furthermore, that the school department is engaged in a national search while there are thousands of capable but unemployed African Americans in Providence who would be valuable teachers if their training as educators was subsidized by the city and state, especially since Providence has a First Source law mandating preferential hiring of municipal residents. Why not work to insure these new teachers are firmly anchored in the municipality they serve? What role will Title II funding provided by the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act play in this program? Lots of florid verbiage but a dearth of details is never a good augury of genuine positive impacts.

Second, in a deceptive pivot that masks a deeply racist agenda, RWU calls for an attack on the collective bargaining agreement of the unions. I for one am not dummy, I know very well that the AFL-CIO has a very problematic history and that its white collar unions have a very bad record with white supremacy. But the contradiction is that currently the largest membership constituency of the national AFL-CIO is African American women and the largest employer of African Americans in toto is the public sector, meaning there is a discernible link between increasing taxes and improving the livelihood of African American workers. A defeat of the teacher unions would undeniably harm African American unionists in organizations like the AFSCME, SEIU, and other unions that do not require the high membership entrance expenses that the teacher profession does. How can RWU claim solidarity while espousing such an anti-solidaristic principle?

Third, the catalyst of Providence’s woes are tied to an austerity regime mandated by the tax exemption of high-value real estate plots within the city limits owned by nonprofits, including private universities such as RWU. Rather than attacking African American workers, why doesn’t RWU unite with other private colleges and universities to make adequate, substantial, and long-term progressive taxation payments to reinvigorate the city Treasury and rebuild public education with finances so desperately needed, something their Law School could assist in? Why not encourage the city and state levy a tax on each dormitory boarder who comes from a high-income family? Develop an annual fee as part of tuition that can redirect federal financial aid dollars into the city coffers, a particularly meritorious discussion point since students utilize the municipal infrastructure without paying any taxes? Reclassify campus buildings not used for instruction (such as the on-campus café) as not exempt from taxation? There are millions of different accounting methods whereby the private colleges could provide funds to the city Treasury. Furthermore, Brown University has already been shown in court to carry liability for its role in the Triangle Trade, which funded its endowment. Why not build with other private colleges a movement to force Brown to pay sustained, meaningful reparations for slavery to finance teacher education tuition at the school of the student’s choice?

Finally, Providence Schools, which was taken over by the state last year after the release of a highly-dubious report authored by John Hopkins University, [2] recently released its academic year calendar. It is, to put it mildly, a travesty. The potential health outcomes for faculty, administrators, staff, students, and families could be catastrophic. I am seeing on Facebook friends with the access to resources and abilities talking about homeschooling in the fall rather than sending their students back to school. Those with the resources and privileges will opt out of enrollment in the fall. Furthermore, many teachers are opting to either take a leave of absence or alternatively leave the profession entirely owing to the health risks. Both developments would at the minimum see a reduction of teacher union membership, if not closure of entire school buildings.

This is deeply aligned with the desires of Raimondo’s charter-financing hedge funder friends on Wall Street, forces who bear substantial guilt for the 2008 housing bubble crash. That crash caused the greatest loss of real estate property by African Americans since the end of Reconstruction. How can one claim solidarity with the BIPOC community while advocating on behalf of these vile forces? Where is her rejection of Commissioner Infante-Green’s viciously racist academic calendar? Where is her rejection of a privatization agenda that has most significant negative impacts upon BIPOC, special education, and English Language Learner students? Unions have plenty of mistake to be held accountable for but the hedge funders that support Gov. Raimondo and Mayor Elorza have many more. Where is Roger Williams University in the constitution and adjudication of that discourse?

The legacy of failures within the Providence school department and the local iteration of the school-to-prison pipeline stems from a very clear, simple financial history. After World War II, the old European immigrant ethnic communities suburbanized and were allowed to “become white,” to borrow the parlance of a recently-deceased scholar. Simultaneously, the urban core was left to rot by a decrease in state funding, tax revenues, and full-time employment job opportunities.

That legacy plays out today in Providence and can only be ameliorated by a viable reinvigoration of public sector employment programs, the unions which collectively bargain on behalf of the nation’s largest employer of African Americans, and funding of the public education institutions that train these workers. Systemic problems require progressive systemic changes that reinvigorate the welfare state rather than further ripping it to shreds. Anything less is mere periphery pecking that does more harm than good.





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.