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Rhody's Neoliberal Approach to Education Reform

Education Commisioner Deborah Gist has ushered in a brand of education reform - centered on charter schools and rigorous teacher evaluation - that comports with an intriguing development on the national front: President Obama's neoliberal embrace of the standards movement that came into full flower under President Bush.

That embrace has troubled many on the left, who note that charters and other tools of the movement - despite some success stories - have fared little better than more traditional tools and worry about the destructive power of drastic reform: the firing of the entire staff at Central Falls High School, for instance.

Backers of the movement say reverting to the old ways is no answer and have vowed to press ahead with reform - to tinker and to demand improvement. Gist and her supporters have drawn sustenance from the national movement - luring the Teach for America program to the state, for instance, and making an all-out dash for a piece of President Obama's $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition, which encourages an expansion of charters and heavy use of data to drive education decisions.

Now, the latest sign of the national convergence on Rhode Island. Democrats for Education Reform, a Washington-based group that is pushing the party to buck teachers unions and embrace reform, is setting up a local chapter here - clearly intrigued by Gist's push. The press release:

Providence, RI – Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) announced today they are opening a branch of their organization in Rhode Island.

“Our mission is to support bold and revolutionary leaders who have the courage to step up and meet the challenges of education reform head on,” said DFER Executive Director Joe Williams. “We assist states fighting the status quo that is failing our nation’s children. We believe Rhode Island is on the threshold of great change and we look forward to supporting change agents in the Ocean State.”

DFER primarily lobbies for education reform at the national level in Washington, D.C., but also works at the state level to effect legislative changes in public education. DFER’s legislative priorities in Rhode Island will include support of a school funding policy, lifting the charter cap and working to continue to better position Rhode Island for Race to the Top funding.

DFER has retained Bill Fischer of True North Communications to assist in their efforts with public relations as well as legislative advocacy at the General Assembly. 

“Our primary focus right now is the current legislative session,” said Williams. “In the coming months, we plan to form a board of directors and expect to hire an executive director for the Rhode Island chapter this fall.”

Rhode Island is the sixth chapter of DFER nationwide. Other chapters are located in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey and Wisconsin. Of the six, Colorado and Rhode Island were selected as finalists in round one for Race to the Top funds.

 

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