Feds Force Rhode Island Teacher Firings
Ocean State bows to federal control over its schools
By Ben Boychuk

Firing every teacher from a struggling Rhode Island high school is a spectacular display of what passes for accountability in education these days. But the controversial decision by a New England school superintendent has more to do with buckling under unforgiving federal mandates than bucking the status quo and boldly asserting local control.

If President Barack Obama has his way, we’ll be seeing more firings like those at Central Falls High School a few weeks ago. That’s not necessarily a good thing.

Central Falls School Superintendent Frances Gallo made national news in February by announcing about 100 teachers and staff members would be laid off at the end of the school year. Her action won praise from school reformers and the enmity of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s two most powerful teacher unions.

Fact is, the schools in Central Falls are a disaster. Central Falls High School has been deemed “in need of reform” and making “insufficient progress” every year since 2003. The high school dropout rate is 52 percent, and half the students there are failing classes. More than 90 percent of the school’s students rank at or near the bottom on standardized tests in reading and math. The district has the highest poverty rate in the Ocean State.

Gallo wasn’t asking too much of high school teachers in proposing they devote an extra 25 minutes a day to classroom instruction and 90 minutes per week and two weeks over the summer for additional training. And it’s not as if she were asking them to work for free. Gallo proposed raising teachers’ wages from $72,000 a year to $75,400—in a part of Rhode Island where the median household income is $22,000 a year.

Yet the teachers union balked and demanded more money and less additional work. Faced with an impasse, Gallo decided to let go the entire staff of the high school and start fresh.

The Central Falls teachers union deserves plenty of blame for doing what teacher unions typically do: look out for their members at the students’ expense. As the late American Federation of Teachers boss Al Shanker (who had a reputation as a reformer) once quipped, “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.”

The union isn’t the only villain here. Although Gallo was under pressure from the state to show progress, the underreported part of the story is the pressure on state officials from the federal government to turn around struggling schools or risk losing millions of dollars in education aid. Gallo’s decision stemmed directly from a 2009 Obama administration mandate tying more than $3.5 billion in federal “turnaround” dollars to meeting federal performance quotas.

Obama praised Gallo’s decision, citing it as an example of what he expects to happen under his new $900 million plan for combating the high school dropout problem. Under this initiative, announced March 1, struggling schools would have four options: fire the principal and at least half the teachers; replace the principal and require the teaching staff to implement “comprehensive instructional reform strategies”; close the school and restart it as a charter school; or close the school and transfer the students to a better school in the same district.

The president says he wants to see 5,000 low-performing schools either turned around or shut down.

It is certainly true that some schools are so hopeless and the teachers so inept that mass firings and shutdowns are the only solution. But isn’t that for local authorities to decide? When did the president become the nation’s superintendent of schools?

This is no picayune concern about process. Obama is embarking on an unprecedented effort to nationalize education policy, removing more and more decision-making authority from locally accountable school officials and empowering far-flung, unaccountable bureaucrats. The Frances Gallos of the world and the students they serve deserve autonomy and choice, not more big-government mandates.

Ben Boychuk (bboychuk@heartland.org) is managing editor of The Heartland Institute’s School Reform News.

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