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Unease in Education Reform Camp

Governor Chafee's nominee for chairman of the state school board, George Caruolo, did little to ease the anxiety of the school reform crowd with an interview that appeared on the front page of the Providence Journal today.

Caruolo's call for a pragmatic approach - for a slowing down of the relentless reform push of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist - puts him firmly in line with the governor who nominated him.

Bill Fischer, a spokesman for Democrats for Education Reform, which supports Gist, says there is nothing wrong with a deliberate approach. But he worries that the rhetoric emanating from the governor's office has placed Rhode Island on a short list of states that are backtracking on reform.

"Their words have meaning and they have a ripple effect that goes down to Washington," Fischer says.

The Chafee administration has argued that his proposed slowdown - he wants a "thoughtful pause" on charter school expansion, for instance - will not jeopardize the $75 million the state won through President Obama's Race to the Top competition.

But Fischer says the state can only break so many reform promises before Obama's education secretary Arne Duncan blanches.

And he worries that the rhetoric could keep away charter school applicants. While neighboring Massachusetts has been flooded with charter school applications, just three proposals have trickled into Rhode Island in the latest round, with the deadline approaching at the end of the day.

Whether Duncan will go so far as to take money away from Rhode Island, only time will tell. And it is difficult to know, too, whether Chafee's rhetoric has had any real bearing on charter school applications.

But Fischer is certainly right to argue that messages matter; Gist, until recently, has been the face of education in Rhode Island. And her hard-charging brand has won national attention and helped attract groups like Teach for America.

The brand is not as strong, now - for better or for worse, depending on your point of view.

Caruolo and at least two other Chafee nominees for the state education board are scheduled to testify before the state Senate at 3 p.m. today. Fischer says he plans to speak, too.

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