After Infante-Green started as the education commissioner in April, she held nine public sessions and more than a dozen focus groups just in Providence to hear comments from parents, teachers, students, and advocates about their community schools in her first four months on the job. “The community feels like they have been let down, and now their kids are being let down,” Infante-Green told me. Several teachers told her that their students could not read. One student told her they had 11 English teachers in one 10-month school year. And then there was the question of diversity in the system: 98 percent of the teachers in the district are white, she told me, and 91 percent of the students are people of color.
Read: Could a state takeover help Chicago’s struggling public schools?
In late July, armed with the results of her public outreach and the report from Johns Hopkins, Infante-Green went to the governor and requested the takeover. In her final takeover order, Infante-Green reasoned that the state and federal government had substantially increased funding for the public schools in Providence since 2011—a year after a new funding formula was implemented; and in the past five years, the state appropriation to the school district had increased by $40 million, and yet the district continued to chronically underperform. (Though critics argue that the formula short-changes English-language learners.) The solution, state officials argue, has to be more than funding.
This isn’t the first time serious issues have been identified in Providence’s public schools. When Domingo Morel’s family moved to Providence from Union City, New Jersey—which had narrowly avoided a state takeover of its own—in 1993, another bombshell report on the poor state of the city’s schools had just been released. “Providence Blueprint for Education” detailed concerns similar to today’s: a lack of school safety, questions of equity, problems with the English learning programs. Morel, who was in high school at the time, remembers the schools being in rough shape.
The 1993 report, which took a year to prepare, was meant to be a nudge—“a message of encouragement, not despair.” The business leaders and educators involved in putting it together wanted to be “perceptively honest” about the schools in Providence, and work to fix them. But when I asked Morel, who is now an assistant political-science professor at Rutgers who assisted the Johns Hopkins team with this year’s report, about what had changed between then and now, his response was simple: “There’s really no difference.”
The benefits of school takeovers are always uncertain—there have been more than 100 state takeovers since New Jersey first took over Jersey City schools in 1989—and any number of things can derail the path to success: The state could misdiagnose the city’s problems, set impractical deadlines, or look to the wrong experts. But one of the biggest potential pitfalls for a state takeover is the failure to involve the community in the plan. Although Raimondo is, according to one poll, the least popular governor in the country, when it comes to the Providence takeover, she has received significant support from political leaders and top educators. The mayor of Providence announced that he supported the takeover; so did the city council, the school board, and the district superintendent. In his book on school takeovers, Morel calls these kinds of situations “cohesive state-local regimes,” where there is a strong relationship between the governor and the mayor of the city being taken over. Typically, these leaders are members of the same party. “The signals that are sent to the community [by this type of agreement] are that this is not going to be the same type of intervention that we’ve seen in other places,” Morel told me.