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Teachers' Union Seems To Harbor Doubts On School Choice Bill

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The leader of one of Rhode Island's two powerful teachers' unions sounded unconvinced this week, following the unveiling of State Education Commissioner...

The leader of one of Rhode Island's two powerful teachers' unions sounded unconvinced this week, following the unveiling of State Education Commissioner Ken Wagner's proposal to open public schools to students from other districts and provide more leeway on items like budgets and textbooks.

In a written statement released after Wagner's "State of Education" speech at the General Assembly, National Education Association Rhode Island President Larry Purtill suggested he takes issue with some aspects of the plan.

"We are appreciative of Governor Raimondo and Commissioner Wagner's efforts to engage in thoughtful and productive conversations with classroom educators. The difference in approach and tenor between Dr. Wagner and his immediate predecessor is significant," Purtill said, a reference to public clashes between teachers and former State Education Commissioner Deborah Gist. 

But he continued, "While we share many of the commissioner's goals and recognize the intent behind the legislation he outlined this evening, we remain concerned about language that might weaken or undermine the collective bargaining rights of education professionals."

Purtill concluded the statement by vowing to "respectfully participate in the legislative process and provide meaningful input for the General Assembly to consider."

Teachers' unions became angry with Wagner's predecessor, Gist, who championed the inclusion of student test scores in teacher ratings and pushed for more regular  evaluations of teachers. They eventually came out against her plan to tie test scores to high school diplomas.

So far Wagner has struck a friendlier tone than his hard-driving predecessor, but he has not disavowed the idea of a diploma system that includes test scores. Under state law, schools cannot use testing as a graduation requirement until next year, but it will become a requirement in 2020.

Wagner has championed changes to the state formula for funding public schools, a high priority for teachers unions. The changes would increase funding for traditional school districts by cutting funding for charter schools.

Larry Purtill, president of the National Education Association Rhode Island. The union represents many suburban teachers.
Larry Purtill, president of the National Education Association Rhode Island. The union represents many suburban teachers.