Rhode Island Ed Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green: Cynical Neoliberal Identity Politics Masking A Financial Mega-Scandal

The Providence Public School District began its school year this month and Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green has probably been letting out a sigh of relief every night. Without the friendly local media coverage from The Providence Journal’s Linda Borg, GoLocal Providence’s “News Team” (whoever that is), and The Boston Globe’s Dan McGowan, not to mention muted support from new Gov. Dan McKee, she would have been shown the door months ago for multiple scandals. It is impossible to deny that part of this success also stems from her very cynical invocation of her identity to distract from these issues. Because she is a Latinx woman, she can cry foul about misogyny, sexism, and racism if anyone dare challenge her.

Unfortunately, of course, there is a hint of truth to this. Last spring, as a child molestation scandal might have sunk her along with former Providence Superintendent Harrison Peters, she accused an unnamed Providence Teachers Union member for calling her the undeniably racist name “AnHELLica.” August Bebel famously quipped that antisemitism was “the socialism of fools” and there certainly were a few clowns taking center ring that day. These clowns have taken center stage quite a few times in the past few years. Owing to a dearth of political education, for example, one group of teachers that were displaced from Cooley High School ended up ranting to the School Board about “political correctness” as if they had just walked out of a Limbaugh broadcast studio.

Yet despite these issues, which should not be ignored or brushed aside, the scandals remain.

Here are just a few.

+ Since taking office in 2019 and implementing a state takeover of Providence schools following the publication of a dubious report by the John Hopkins University Institute for Education Policy, Infante-Green, an alumnus of Jeb Bush’s ed privatization mill Chiefs for Change, has made crushing the Providence Teachers Union her top priority. In order to reach that goal, she has brushed aside any voices from grassroots community organizations, like the OurSchoolsPVD Coalition, that might not align with her disaster capitalism methods. To that extent, she intentionally dragged out contract negotiations with the PTU for over 18 months, becoming so antagonizing that a mediator was required to enter the proceedings. When Gov. McKee took office following former Gov. Gina Raimondo’s resignation to assume a Biden Cabinet post, he promptly removed Infante-Green from negotiations and rapidly delivered an amicable contract to the PTU. This demonstrated conclusively that the Commissioner had wasted tax dollars unnecessarily in order to crush one of the largest unions in the entire Rhode Island AFL-CIO. Why should taxpayers allow such a gargantuan misallocation of funds in the midst of a massive economic contraction? Why not instead expend those dollars on infrastructure improvements and other public sector measures, like benefit, retirement, and job programs, that would help increase consumer demand and thereby lift the local economy out of the COVID Depression?

+ John Maynard Keynes once famously quipped that he would happily see the public sector pay people to dig and then promptly fill in holes so to put spending money in their pockets, which in turn would increase demand levels in the economy. By contrast, Infante-Green, who insists she stands in solidarity with the Global Southern populations of Providence, has instead fired multiple Black/Brown/Indigenous district employees, including everyone from administrators to clerical staff to stock clerks. This is all in the midst of a gigantic economic stimulus program from the federal government that could and should have been applied in a much more competent fashion. This was all passed off as a reorganization of the school district, which was described as being too top-heavy in the dubious John Hopkins report. Now the plan is to rehire people in a needless fashion. Why? Many of these fired employees began their career under earlier Mayoral administrations. Eliminating these jobs means reducing seniority and, perhaps more importantly, long-term obligations under earlier employee benefit and retirement contracts. Simultaneously, district and school administrators have seen tremendous raises. This is financial favoritism for a small coterie of the well-connected at the expense of the broader public, who might otherwise have seen PPSD become a public sector jobs program hub at the exact moment it would have done the most good.

+ On September 23, Steph Machado at WPRI News reported that the school district lease part of an office building at 100 Niantic Avenue owned by former Lt. Governor and current Superior Court Judge Richard Licht. The cost of the lease was $87,312 and another $110,350 was spent on supplies/furnishings. Why house employees in a new building when the district has spent decades at the central location of 797 Westminster Street, just adjacent to three massive high schools? Could the selection of a property owned by Judge Licht be a form of legalized bribery? In 2012, then-Treasurer Gina Raimondo strong-armed the legislature into passing a “pension reform” bill that turned millions of retirement fund dollars over to the hedge fund industry. However, a key demographic of the state employee pool that was exempt from taking a haircut were the judges, who in turn delivered lawsuit verdicts that were favorable to Raimondo’s Wall Street cronies. Are we seeing a similar plan emerge here?

+ Further compounding this waste is the increase in professional obligations for all remaining district employees. Janitors are now taking on tasks that the fired Stock Clerks used to hold. Teacher assistants (TAs) are seeing their daily workload multiply, further exhausting employees who are responsible for supporting special education students, the most vulnerable populations in the school building. Teachers are obliged to maintain a lending system for the various outside reading books students are obliged to read for homework, a task that used to be the obligation of the school librarians. The desired outcome is obvious, the district wants to foster burn-out and resulting teacher resignations. This in turn will again reduce financial obligations to older benefit and retirement contracts.

+ This will also create a larger demand for poorly-trained Teach for America (TFA) hires. TFAs have well-documented failings. The program recruits candidates from out-of-state to work in high-poverty districts, fostering a kind of secularized, neoliberal missionary mentality, which in turn means faculty members do not have strong connections with the communities they teach in. TFAs have a high turnover rate, with only 14.8% remaining at the school they were originally assigned to after five years. This decrease in faculty retention, lack of strong community connection, and transformation of public education into a “gap year” filler rather than a lifelong career and vocation effectively de-professionalizes public school teaching. In the long-term, this erodes a pillar of the American social contract, universal free-at-point-of-contact public education.

+ One of the great under-reported scams in the RI Department of Education and the respective school districts is the insane, pointless decision to introduce entirely new curricula every 3-5 years, with the attendant multi-million dollar contracts to buy new textbooks, computer programs, and other wastes of paper. Upon taking office, Infante-Green transitioned Providence over to the American Reading Curriculum (ARC) module, which is both inferior to the last curriculum used by the district and uses outright racist textbooks. For instance, the middle school social studies classrooms were given copies of A Patriot’s History of the United States by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen. The tome, a reactionary polemic disguised as objective history, was written as a rebuttal to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and bears endorsements from not only the usual suspects, such as Rush Limbaugh, but outright neo-fascistic white nationalists like Trump administration official Sebastian Gorka. Another book, Painless American Government, published by Barron’s, hasn’t been updated since 2004. This has been seen across the entire spectrum of classroom materials. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of websites that host cost-free, up-to-date, and meaningful curriculum materials that school districts can use at will. Websites like Project Gutenberg and LibriVox host thousands of books, magazines, and journals that have entered the public domain, including the literary classics and nonfiction titles by authors from across the globe in multiple languages. University and college publishers and various academic departments release open-access materials that are peer-reviewed and used in their own classrooms. The State University of New York (SUNY) offers free digital textbooks for every subject, from academic writing to web development. The state intentionally squanders millions on inferior-grade dreck that is surpassed by free materials hosted by accredited universities! How is this not a massive grievance cosigned by every union member?

+ Rather than using the COVID-19 stimulus bills to finance a public sector hiring spree, instead Commissioner Infante-Green has retained the services of multiple “consulting firms” that directly contradict one another on almost any issue imaginable! For examples, while ARC mandates a strict, top-down, and homogeneous set of instructional modules, another consulting firm that recently observed English teachers directed them to diversify the curriculum with various choice options for the students. This is another jaw-dropping squandering of millions of dollars that should instead finance hiring multiple new support staffers, teachers, and other positions.

+ At the end of the 2020-21 academic year, the district administration was rocked by a scandal when Network Superintendent Olayinka Alege was arrested in the suburb of Warwick for alleged child molestation at a gym. Alege was arrested in April. It was revealed over the next month that his immediate superiors, Supt. Harrison Peters, andCommissioner Infante-Green, had hired Alege despite knowing this was not the first instance of suspicious behavior. As I wrote in May, Alege had previously been documented by Tampa news outlets for engaging in similar behavior while an assistant principal at a Tampa high school, calling students with bad grades into his office for what he called “toe popping” sessions where he squeezed their digits. This clearly is a form of youth grooming that is totally inappropriate contact between youths and adults. They knowingly hired this official despite this record, a clear instance of child endangerment. Peters was forced to resign but was given a golden parachute and, despite this, still earned his Superintendent’s certification from the State of Rhode Island. As teachers, we are legally required to serve as mandatory reporters who must immediately report to the police if we suspect a youth is being subjected to any form of child abuse. If a unionized teacher had engaged in behavior of even 1/10th this severity and were caught, they would have been forced to surrender their teaching license.

+ Rhode Island College (RIC) is the longstanding normal school that produced thousands of educators in its 150+ year existence. It also is home to a computer science department that trains competent programmers. As Education Commissioner, Infante-Green has the power to create a technology lab to develop various systems to operate in the public school classrooms. Everything from data analysis to distance learning lesson delivery systems could be developed by the public sector as part of a larger program to foster a computing sector of the economy. These student programmers could go on to careers as computer technicians that work at the public school buildings or provide products to the district. And yet, instead, the district spends millions of dollars annually on low-quality Chromebooks and other third party software programs that are produced by the militantly anti-teacher union Silicon Valley and Gates Foundation. Again, why should taxpayers of Rhode Island bail-out anti-labor forces rather than investing in our own local economy?

The only hope for the district lies in a concerted effort that unifies the various unions that provide services in Providence schools and seeks to unionize non-union staff like janitorial/food service workers, who only lack a union card because the late Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci privatized their contract decades ago. Teachers could begin building this unity by simply having lunch with TA’s and inviting these colleagues to PTU meetings. The TA’s in turn could build links with the bus drivers, who are members of the extremely powerful Teamster union and, perhaps most importantly, has an “open door” policy that could allow janitors and meal servers to fill out a union card off-campus and off-hours. Unionizing the non-union workers is important in order to prevent the bosses from utilizing these staffers in a fashion to hinder potential future labor actions. Infante-Green could easily use non-union per diem subs, who only require a clean background check, a Bachelor’s degree, and a pulse, in order to fill classrooms if necessary.

These state- and municipal-level political machinations might seem extraordinarily provincial, if not irrelevant to most readers. They should not be construed as such. Rhode Island has been a strange incubator for the neoliberal Democratic Party agenda for decades. Major Clinton administration officials and operatives, like policy wonk Ira Magaziner and fundraiser Mark Weiner, dropped anchor in the Ocean State while commuting to Washington. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s Vice Presidential running mate Sen. Tim Kaine was summering in Newport when he was alerted he had been selected by the former Secretary of State. Is it possible that the scandalous misallocation and irresponsible expenditure of economic recovery funds from the federal government is being repeated across the country? Is this phenomenon indicative of how conservative the Biden administration really is? As occurred in 2007-09, mainstream liberal media outlets, not to mention quite a few progressive-leaning ones, are claiming that the White House is on the verge of a Roosevelt-level public spending spree that will not just equal but surpass the New Deal, perhaps aiming for the heights of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. (The symmetry of the conservative press, such as Fox News or The Wall Street Journal, who claims that Biden is a socialist, is of course a given.)

Should state and municipal governments instead replicate the policies we are seeing in the Ocean State, this could spell dire consequences over the longterm. If these recovery bills are not administered in a responsible fashion nearing some resemblance of the old Keynesian welfare state social contract, the continued economic stagnation for the vast majority of the public would give a powerful weapon yet again to the nativist wing of the Republican Party. Twelve years ago, the Tea Party claimed that Obama’s harsh austerity agenda was a form of socialism and delivered to us Grand Bargains, Birtherism, and ultimately Donald Trump. If history were to repeat itself, we would be in a lot of trouble.