The Rhode Island Governor’s Race a Win for Students and Ed Reform

Finally! Students are honored in a Rhode Island election and even more strikingly, it happens despite an against-the-national-grain sweep for Democrats. As an independent who almost always votes a split ticket, I am not normally happy with such a partisan result. However, as a mother of three and a supporter of education reform, I’m elated and more optimistic than ever. Our statehouse will now be run by a governor and lieutenant governor who are both known for bucking the status quo and showing unparalleled courage when it comes to doing what the state needs. Though they did not run as a team, both are proven change agents. Despite their boldness in taking on hot button issues like pension reform and charter expansion—typically unpopular with voters of their own party and wildly unpopular with unions—they manage to win elections. From pension reform to an equitable school funding formula to regionalization/consolidation to school choice, their ability to move the needle has been nothing short of remarkable. Believe me, this is no small feat in the smallest state in the union.

Optimistic for Raimondo

Gina Raimondo is our governor-elect (and first female elected as governor ever in Rhode Island). She has earned national recognition as our state’s general treasurer for her unprecedented success in passing pension reform and in doing so, has caught the eye and repeated financial backing of widely known education reform-minded individuals throughout the country including Eli Broad, Cory Booker, Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein. Admittedly, Raimondo has not yet been tested specifically on education, although her vision for K-12 education is somewhat promising. That being said, education specific questions remain. Here are mine:
  • Will she support renewal of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist’s contract? Gist’s ability to move the needle for kids in Rhode Island has been remarkable and I can’t imagine losing her leadership in the middle of such meaningful change for kids. Education people close to the governor-elect say they think she’ll keep her. I hope they’re right.
  • Will Raimondo declare herself a supporter of school choice? Considering Rhode Island’s proven success in charter school achievement and the thousands of children on waiting lists to get in, I can’t imagine that she won’t. My education friends promise that she will. I hope they’re right.
  • Will she ensure that her appointees to the Board of Education are champions for kids and not beholden to any other special interests? Those I’ve asked say she will absolutely do right by kids with her appointments. I hope they’re right.
  • Will she be the one to finally say that the racial and economic isolation of our capital city’s failing schools can’t be tolerated a single minute more and promise to do whatever it takes to resurrect the school system before another generation of Providence kids is lost? Those close to her all say yes. I really hope they’re right.
Why am I optimistic if I can’t even answer these basic questions with confidence? Well, here’s why. Our new governor is a mother with two children in public schools. She is the wife of a Teach for America alum, and as a former Rhodes Scholar, her intelligence is without question. I am hopeful that she will capitalize on her extraordinary intellect and political courage and do for our state’s public schools what she has already done with state pensions—acknowledge that they are broken and work tirelessly to fix them.

McKee Strong on Education

Dan McKee is our lieutenant governor-elect and his education credentials and commitment to kids are already well established. Like Gina, he is no stranger to national education figures and he too has earned the confidence and financial backing of prominent individuals who support school reform. As the mayor of Cumberland, Rhode Island (the position he still holds), he has participated on conference calls and/or panel discussions with Arne Duncan and former-NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein, as well as the mayors of Sacramento, Philadelphia, and Denver. His most notable education achievement is his creation of the Rhode Island Mayoral Academies but his founding of the Office of Children, Youth, and Learning cannot be overlooked either. I can say, without hesitation, that these Mayoral Academies are changing the education game, not only because all three of my boys learn inside of one every day, but because their academic gains for low income and minority students are unprecedented in the Ocean State. Not surprisingly, the success of these Mayoral Academies has made McKee a constant target of the teachers unions, most recently evidenced by their unanimous endorsements of his Republican opponent. However, and much to my delight, the union attacks on McKee’s record, character and family fell on deaf ears—he defeated the Republican candidate by more than 20 percent of the vote. His overwhelming victory is not only a testament to his nonpartisan leadership, but evidence that the voters of Rhode Island support education reform and believe that it’s high time to bring true excellence into our school buildings. So, on the heels of election 2014, those of us Rhode Islanders whose lens is defined by education are celebrating. Our newly elected executive duo are courageous leaders known for standing up to special interests and having the courage to succeed in doing what the state—especially its students and families—most need. Stay tuned. It promises to be a pretty exciting ride.  
Erika Sanzi
Erika Sanzi is a mother of three sons and taught in public schools in Massachusetts, California and Rhode Island. She has served on her local school board in Cumberland, Rhode Island, advocated for fair school funding at the state level, and worked on campaigns of candidates she considers to be champions for kids and true supporters of great schools. She is currently a Fordham senior visiting ...

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