On January 19, Providence teachers held a rally at Classical High School, located directly across the street from the district administration building, opposing the effort to expand the Achievement First charter school so significantly it would do irreparable and ultimately terminal damage to the school district.

Track 1: Mark Santow | Track 2: Mike Araujo

The city of Providence has a large population of black/brown students centered in the Olneyville and South Providence neighborhoods. Many of these residents are also Latinx, with a significant percentage hailing from the Dominican Republic. Along with Spanish, there has been a notable influx of Mayans who speak K’iche’ as their first language within the past few years. Following the November 2016 election, there was a calculated and intentional effort in these communities to get as many children into the country as possible before the January 2017 inauguration of Donald Trump. This has lead to as many as two or three newly-arrived English Language Learner students entering the Providence school system on a daily basis, an astounding fact that would require a massive increase in spending on resources for these students, up to and including the creation of a whole new ELL school to properly accommodate the needs of these pupils. The city’s finances have been in serious arrears for some time now owing to the fact that Brown University and other private colleges refuse to pay taxes on a large percentage of total landholdings within the city limits, though at one time they did so. Funding for education in Providence is based on a per-pupil funding formula that follows each student from kindergarten to high school graduation. However, it is far from assured, according to union president Maribeth Calabro, that funds would follow a student back to public schools if “counseled out” of Achievement First, which is infamous for its Gulag-like disciplinary standards that take little account of ethnic, emotional, and psychological diversity within urban student populations with such high rates of poverty.

With all these facts in mind and combined with the point that we are speaking of the poorest population in a state which has remained in a recession since 2008 where the only growth seen was in the medical field owing to the expansion of the patient base caused by the Affordable Care Act, the notion of giving a massive bail-out to a corporate-backed non-profit charter school operator, Achievement First, is not just ill conceived but outright cruelty bordering on attempted child negligence. And yet, despite legislation passed last summer by the General Assembly intended to mandate the prohibition of such efforts, the Commissioner of Education Ken Wagner and the Rhode Island Council on Elementary and Secondary Education on December 20 allowed for the massive expansion of the Achievement First charter school. City Councilman Sam Zurier had previously filed a report with the City Council and Council on Elementary and Secondary Education on November 30 that argued this expansion would “break” the Providence Public School District but this had no impact. And the reason why leads directly to Wagner’s boss, Gov. Gina Raimondo, spouse of charter school industrial player Andy Moffit. While State Treasurer, Raimonodo invested the state pension in hedge funds, described by economist Michael Hudson as “collections of wealth for raiders to use as a basis for borrowing to take over companies”, which in turn are major backers of the charter school industry.

These teachers that gathered for the protest recognize clearly that it will be the most vulnerable in the city who would be negatively impacted and are ready for a fight. This event was just the start of a multi-month campaign that will put pressure on the Mayor, who sits on the board of Achievement First and could veto the expansion application. It bears mentioning that it was not until the very last minute that Achievement First’s expansion application was greatly increased in size from a modest level to that which is now before the Mayor. This duplicity and sneakiness itself is a minor scandal worthy of consideration due to the fact that Providence is a longtime union stronghold. Furthermore, Election Day 2016 also saw an overwhelming popular mandate rejecting charter schools in neighboring Massachusetts, giving a certain audacity to this issue.

The Treasurer of the Providence Teachers Union, Alex Lucini, kindly answered the following questions for me in an interview.

1. Alex, describe your feelings in a broad sense about having seen the expansion application with such a large volume of students that would do such damage to the district in such a striking procession following a resounding defeat next door in Massachusetts. In a word, what is going on here when you just saw a massive regional rejection of school privatization?

So a large of the campaign in Massachusetts was, “We are number 1 in the country in education, why mess with something that is working.” While RI isn’t at the top, there are a lot of educational factors that are moving the right direction. We look at the work around chronic absenteeism dropping in Providence, graduation rates across the state rising, etc. and we see slow but long term systemic improvement. However, when you open up the Providence Journal, you are not shown that. I believe Ed Acorn and the [Providence Journal] editorial board along with other opinion based media people in Rhode Island constantly bash the work of our teachers and our students. If RI wants to build a movement similar to Massachusetts, there needs to be a great push and more opportunities for people in the education community to share the positives happening in schools with the public.

2. What is your feeling on these developments in light of the fact that it looked like such a huge progressive victory almost a year ago when Bernie sanders swept the state primaries?

This was a change election. People are just sick of this. I look at my town of residence in Johnston as a petri dish of this. Johnston was once Clinton-town. No town in RI supported Hillary Clinton more in the 2008 Democratic primary than Johnston. She suffered TWO defeats in 2016 in Johnston. First, after campaigning at the Atwood Grill in Johnston, she lost to Bernie in the primary and then was crushed by Trump (60/40) in the November election. I know from walking my district over the summer, that many Rhode Islanders have not yet felt the economic recovery and are just tired of the status quo. Future RI candidates need to really focus not only on what to fix, but fixing it in a different way. I think this conversation will really play out in the 2018 RI Governor’s race.

3. What sort of statewide and interstate solidarity are you seeing?

I’m really interested to use 2017 to learn from other states. I was really amazed by the grassroots campaign Massachusetts led to defeat Question 2 in November. I’m also interested in looking at several Progressive teacher union slates that are running in the Boston, and Denver, and continuing to look at the work of the Chicago and New York teachers unions. I will comment on this. I have seen virtually no support from anyone regarding the nomination of Betsy DeVos for education secretary. I think educator and the Democratic party should use this opposition to unite around a common goal to resist DeVos’s failed policies.

4. How can supporters across the country show support?

The Democratic party learned a hard lesson in November. People did not have the ability to differentiate the policies of Democrats and Republicans. The Democratic party is to blame for much of that. I think Public Education policy is an area that really highlights this issue. I think supporters need to send a clear message that the failed policies of education deformers are not something that should be in future platforms of the Democratic party.

5. Describe some of the things you have seen in terms of student poverty and why taking resources away from the district would be irresponsible if not negligent?

The money follows the child sounds nice but every child requires different supports in school. A native speaking regular education student such as myself requires less resources and support that an English is a second language speaker with or with Special Education needs. My fear is that the expansion will really tighten the grip on the ability for PPSD to provide what is needed for our most vulnerable students. I have long listened to the phrase “education opportunities should not be determined by a zip code.” While the charter advocate community and I fully agree on that principle, I’m confused why the drive is only on schooling and not other holistic economic drivers like access to heath care or affordable housing.

6. You’ve been in Providence politics for a long time and, without putting on rose-colored glasses, how do you feel about the developments in City Hall since Buddy Cianci was out of power?

Buddy Cianci loved Providence. He was a flawed man, but he took pride in the city. No one will ever take that away from him. It seems like each Mayor since Buddy has wanted to be the “education” Mayor. But to be completely honest, any Mayor of Providence CAN be the “education” Mayor. The relationship between the Mayor’s office and the School Dept. is unique in Providence and is one creates a lot of decisions for political or non-education reasons. Let’s look at the current Achievement First situation. The Superintendent of Providence Schools works at the pleasure of the Mayor (with City Council approval). The School Board of the Providence School is Mayoral appointed (with City Council approval). The Mayor is the Board Chair of the Achievement First Mayoral Academy. The lead fiscal officer of the school department does not report to the school department but rather city hall. This essentially places responsibility of our schools directly on the Mayor of the City of Providence. I think the answer to how this works can be found in form Superintendent Sue Lusi’s comment in her exit interview with the press when she stated that City Hall has too great of an influence on school department decisions.

7. You spoke about the illegal firing of teachers at the rally. Can you discuss the feeling you have now as compared to then?

I think personally, I’m in a better place that during the firing. I was a very young teacher at the time (24) and I had recently purchased a house. In the few months following the firing, my property taxes skyrocketed, I got a huge car tax bill, and had no idea if I would be employed the following school year (my school was also closed). It was really frustrating to have my career and my livelihood used as a political tool. The collective WE of teachers continued to do our job and give the students everything we had, but on the inside, and in our personal lives, many of us were shadows of ourselves. Looking back many people say, it was no big deal, all the teachers came back. But in reality is was very real. I remember being at a forum with teacher asking then Superintendent Tom Brady questions, and having him suggest to teachers that they schedule doctor’s appointments for their children because he was not sure who long after termination, that they would be insured. This campaign opposing the two-tiered system is different because the effects are years out. However, I think that the urgency around this campaign is the fact that this affects EVERY Providence teacher, student, and parent.

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