March 20, 2014

Supt. Lusi tells lawmakers that too much testing hurting preparation for Common Core

Linda Borg, Providence Journal
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — School Supt. Susan Lusi told lawmakers that her students and staff are spending too much time on testing at the expense of preparing students for the Common Core state standards.
Lusi and Providence School Board President Keith Oliveira were invited by Rep. Teresa Tanzi to speak Wednesday before a dozen members of the General Assembly. Tanzi said the forum was designed as a follow-up to a recent hearing before the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee.
Tanzi, D-South Kingstown, said she didn’t invite anyone from the state Department of Education to Wednesday’s roundtable. She said, however, that she had invited state Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist to speak at two earlier public forums, but that she had declined.
Elliot Krieger, a spokesman for the education commissioner, said the Department of Education plans to schedule a forum on the Common Core education standards at Rhode Island College. The Common Core is a uniform set of English and math standards adopted by 45 states, including Rhode Island and the District of Colombia.
Lusi said Rhode Island is not making the same commitment to education reform that has made Massachusetts a national leader.
“In Providence, what we’re doing is distracting us from that agenda,” she said. “We’re not focused on the Common Core. We’re just doing test after test.”
Gist says that testing high school students is one way of demonstrating that they are prepared for college or the workplace. Too many students, she says, have graduated only to find themselves taking remedial courses in college.
Students who fail the NECAP are eligible to take one of 10 alternate tests. Waivers are available on a case-by-case basis for students who have demonstrated subject mastery.
Oliveira worries that those seniors who don’t pass the NECAP, which they can retake, will become discouraged and drop out.
Several legislators expressed concern Wednesday that the NECAP was putting too much stress on high school juniors and seniors and their teachers.
“I taught for 37 years and I retired from teaching because all we did was test,” said Rep. Donna Walsh, D-Charlestown. “I saw kids that were test-weary. We are testing at the expense of curriculum.”
But Rep. Joy Hearn, D-Barrington, cautioned against rolling back the clock on education reform.
“We need to get these students as much help as humanly possible,” she said. “Our responsibility as legislators is to make sure we deliver educated adults.”

March 19, 2014

Bill Seeks to Postpone Testing on Common Core

by Benjamin Branchaud
 Narragansett Times

     The Common Core standards, marketed as a system to determine what is expected of students at each grade level, will be the basis of standardized testing beginning with freshman from the class of 2019.
     House Bill 7256, which will be heard today, seeks to postpone testing on the Common Core standards until 2019, when students will have had a full four years of instruction on the standards.
     State Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-Dist. 34) is signed on tot he bill and feels strongly about the educational system and the need to introduce news systems gently and with care.
    "You can't just create an effective curriculum overnight and then test our students on it and have them be held accountable on an untested and unproven curriculum that was just established," said Tanzi. "We're holding them accountable for a curriculum they haven't been exposed to."
     Tanzi does not necessarily oppose the Common Core standards, but sees a need to test them and examine them more closely.
     "You need to make sure that before schools are ruining student's lives by not graduating them, that the curriculum they created is tested, tried and true," she said.  "Here we are doing very little in reality to improve or accelerate the implementation of this.  I do not - in any way, shape or form - want to lower the standards. I just want to make sure that our students aren't guinea pigs."
     Massachusetts, which is in a three-state educational consortium with Rhode Island and New York, recently took a similar position on the implementation of a new curriculum.
     "In Massachusetts, when they created their own curriculum, they took 10 years to phase it in," said Tanzi. "Then they invested millions of dollars into districts throughout the state, creating an opportunity for schools to really implement the curriculum well. This clearly has an impact on students in our (the South Kingston/Narragansett) district.  You can't create it in one shot.  You can't write a brilliant novel without any edits. Rhode Island, so far, has refused to reconsider implementation. Our commissioner has said 'We're not going backwards.'  If we see that something is not going well, we have to respond.  This is not about pride or ego.  This is about our kids."
     South Kingston Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow is enthusiastic about the bills, including this one, that are in the general assembly regarding education.
     "This looks to me like a philosophical look at 'What is the role of a state assessment?' It's very important," she said.  "I'm looking at 12 different bills right now that are very thoughtfully presented. Every single sentence and paragraph, from my perspective, has a lot of information in it that would be impactful to our educational setting."

Tanzi reintroduces bill aimed at reducing school suspensions

Linda Borg, Providence Journal
   Flanked by members of the NAACP and Youth Pride, Rep. Teresa Tanzi reintroduced a bill aimed at reducing the number of suspensions in public schools and addressing the substantial disparities in suspension rates between white and minority students.
Rep. Tanzi speaks at State House press conference with members
of Public Defenders office, NAACP, Youth Pride, DARE, ACLU
   Last week, the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union released a study that found that public schools continue to suspend minority students at rates disproportionately higher than their white peers.
   Tanzi, D-South Kingstown, said that in Rhode Island, more than 60 percent of suspensions are imposed for minor infractions. Legislation approved in 2012 made it illegal to suspend students for attendance issues and since then, suspensions have plummeted from nearly 22,000 in 2011-2012 to almost 16,000 during the prior school year.
   Tanzi’s bill would reserve out-of-school suspensions for those behaviors where a student poses a risk of physical harm or serious disruption to other students that cannot be controlled otherwise.
   At Tuesday’s news conference, deputy public defender Mathew Toro said once a student is caught up in the juvenile justice system, it’s hard for him or her to get out.
   Elana Rosenberg, program coordinator for Youth Pride, a gay-rights group, said gay students are sometimes suspended for expressing their gender identity. The suspensions often lead to the student being “outed” to his or her family, she said. Almost one-third of those youth are rejected by their parents.

March 12, 2014

Tanzi secures grant for YMCA for facilitating group promoting biking and walking

In photo: Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-Dist. 34, South Kingstown, Narragansett) delivers a legislative grant to the South County YMCA for administration of the Healthy Places by Design walking and biking subcommittee. From left, YMCA Welcome Center Navigator Tara Converse, Welcome Center Director Melissa Bousquet, Representative Tanzi and YMCA Fitness Center Representative Susan Myette.
STATE HOUSE – Rep. Teresa Tanzi recently delivered a $2,500 legislative grant to the South County YMCA to support its administration of the Healthy Places by Design walking and biking subcommittee.

Healthy Places by Design is an initiative in several Rhode Island cities to promote active, healthy lifestyles through community design and planning that encourages walking and bicycling, maintenance of villages, and access to both recreation opportunities and healthy food. The South County YMCA has become the home of the group’s bicycling and walking subcommittee, providing meeting spaces as well as administrative support and facilitation of events like the organization’s upcoming bike swap to be held on April 26.

“The Y has been a very strong partner for Healthy Places by Design, and we look forward to many further successes in our partnership,” said Representative Tanzi (D-Dist. 34, South Kingstown, Narragansett), who volunteers with the walking and biking subcommittee.

March 7, 2014

Agency told to draft plan for grants

By John Howell   Warwick Beacon Online

         The agency that administers more than 19,000 state student grants each year has been given until April 1 to develop a plan to wind down its operations, which could mean grants being handled by another agency or, as Rep. Michael Marcello proposes, about $12 million going to the three state institutions of higher learning.

       The April 1 deadline was voted on Thursday night by the House Committee on Oversight after a debate of more than an hour on the future of the Rhode Island Higher Education Assistance Authority. RIHEAA was created as a guaranty agency for student loans, however, since the federal government went into the business of direct student loans, revenues from RIHEAA’s portfolio, which has enabled it to operate and build reserves, will dry up. As of Nov. 30, 2013, the agency had $21.9 million in operating reserves; $10.2 million in federal fund reserves; $8.5 million in the CollegeBoundfund administrative fund [used for student grants] and $4.7 million in the Alliance Bernstein contract fund. Marcello, who chairs the committee, said he has requested a phase-out plan for the past year-and-a-half and still hasn’t gotten one.

     “That’s what we’ve been waiting for,” a frustrated Marcello said. “The fundamental role it [RIHEAA] was set up for is no longer necessary,” he added.

      Lending urgency to the issue is an act of the federal budget approved this year that further diminishes what guaranty agencies can retain on loan default collections. Without any changes in operations, this puts RIHEAA running in the red in the coming fiscal year, rather than in the two- to three-year window it had previously been working with.

     In addition to its role as a guarantee agency and managing the grants, RIHEAA oversees the CollegeBoundfund and runs WaytogoRI, a web-based portal used by more than 90,000 students from public and private elementary and secondary schools.

     CollegeBoundfund, a college savings plan administered by Alliance Bernstein, generates more than $8 million in revenues for the state. RIHEAA has largely dedicated those funds to make up declining state appropriations for student grants and scholarships. Grants, which are based on financial need, range from $250 to $750.

     At its Feb. 6 hearing, Marcello reasoned, with today’s high college costs, the grants barely buy a few books and the funds would be better spent going to URI, RIC and CCRI.
“Is there a better place for this money to go?” Marcello asked the committee Thursday. “What do we do with this program?”

     Among the options he offered are to do nothing or “my preference would be to give it to the colleges to direct financial aid programs.”

      Marcello didn’t find consensus among committee members. Rep. Karen MacBeth said she has two daughters in college and “$700 is a lot of money.” She said she would like to see more money going into student grants and that the 19,000 students getting grants “have a significant need to get that.”
Rep. Lisa Tomasso questioned how effectively and efficiently the state college programs are run and wanted an understanding of those programs if the funds were going to go there.

     Taking a larger view, Rep. Teresa A. Tanzi looked at RIHEAA’s overall operations.
“If [we’re] dissolving an institution, we want to make sure the institutional knowledge goes forward,” she said.

      In a letter to Marcello, RIHEAA acting director Gail Mance-Rios said the board and senior staff “have been meeting to develop a strategic plan for the agency.” She said the board is “determined to make the necessary changes that will improve and sustain the overall fiscal condition of the agency.”
The letter offers a chart of estimates, revenues and expenses from 2014 to 2018, showing operations generating incomes from $2.7 million this year to $518,125 in 2018.

      It says discussions have started to consider outsourcing most of the loan servicing functions and scheduling meetings with labor representatives to discuss corresponding reductions in staff. The agency has the equivalent of 24 full-time state employees.

     As for the student grant program, the letter says the RIHEAA board has begun evaluating the underlying formula to look at ways to redesign the program to target workforce skills gaps and motivate students to graduate are among other options. On the issue of the $21.9 million in reserves, the letter says the board is exploring the possibility of creating an endowment “to ensure the long-term use of the reserves for direct student financial aid.”

     Marcello didn’t see a way for the agency to finance operations once the loan servicing revenues are gone without tapping into funds now going to students.

     He said the projections provided in the letter, “divert money from the CollegeBoundfund, which normally would be going to students.”Mance-Rios said yesterday that RIHEAA has covered the administrative costs of the programs it operates through revenues from its guarantee functions.“RIHEAA has always underwritten the operational costs of the grant program and some of the CollegeBoundfund,” she said. Referring to the five-year plan provided the committee, she said, “We are accounting for all revenues and we’re not taking money from grant programs to support the agency.”

     Marcello pushed for the committee to offer its ideas for a plan.

     Rep. Patricia Serpa noted that according to its letter, RIHEAA is working on a plan.
“I want to see it by April 1,” she said. Her request was the basis of a motion the committee approved unanimously.

     As for the reserves, the concept of an endowment resonated with Tanzi. Committee members also had concerns as to what might become of the funds.

     “I would hate to see the reserves swept into another department,” said Marcello.

John Howell, the author of this story, is a member of the RIHEAA board of directors.

February 27, 2014

Tanzi bill would begin statewide cesspool phase-out

STATE HOUSE –As a means to protect the public and the environment, Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-Dist. 34, South Kingstown, Narragansett) today introduced legislation to eliminate cesspools in Rhode Island.

Cesspools – buried chambers that receive sewage from a building for disposal into the ground – release untreated human waste into the environment, often in direct contact with groundwater. New cesspool construction was banned in Rhode Island in 1968, and since then new buildings have generally been connected to municipal sewers or built with onsite septic systems that safely treat waste.

Under legislation passed in 2007, by this year all cesspools within 200 feet of coastal waters and public drinking water supplies were required to be replaced either by state-approved on-site wastewater treatment systems or connections to sewer systems. 

But that still leaves thousands of other cesspools in use across the state that threaten the environment and public health, and Rhode Island needs a plan to eliminate them.

“There was nothing magic about the 200-foot limit built into the original law,” said Representative Tanzi. “Over time, a cesspool will affect people’s land and the environment over far greater distances, so it is time for all of them to go.”

As of last year, there were still about 25,000 cesspools in the state, according to Department of Environmental Management estimates.

Representative Tanzi’s bill, which she submitted in conjunction with the DEM, teams her up once again with Rep. Donna M. Walsh (D-Dist. 36, Charlestown, South Kingstown, Westerly and New Shoreham) who is cosponsoring the bill. Representatives Tanzi and Walsh have worked closely to tackle these problems.

The bill would require that all cesspools in the state, regardless of location, be replaced when they fail, or when the property is sold or transferred to someone outside the seller’s immediate family. The replacement must occur within 12 months of the date of the sale or transfer. The legislation also requires that any property that currently uses a cesspool but has a sewer stub for connection to a public sewer be connected to the sewer by Jan. 1, 2016.

Representative Tanzi said using the point of sale as a trigger for cesspool replacement makes sense because in recent years, many lenders – in particular the Federal Housing Administration – have become reluctant to finance the purchase of properties with cesspools. And because of real estate disclosure requirements, the presence of a cesspool makes it difficult to sell properties. 

“At or before the time comes to sell a property, there’s a huge added incentive to replace a cesspool since it will come up during the course of the transaction.  Buyers will struggle to get financing for a property with a cesspool, and the presence of a cesspool is a knock against the property for buyers anyway. The home will be worth much more to potential buyers with an updated septic system or a sewer hookup, so the seller will benefit. But the biggest benefit is to the environment, because it will mean an end to one more source of pollution,” said Representative Tanzi. 

“Since you can’t put a price tag on the value of a cleaner environment, any time is a good time to replace an old cesspool, if only to protect your own well water. However, I also understand that it can be a big expense for a homeowner to replace a septic system. That’s another reason why I believe the most practical approach is to require cesspool replacement to occur when the property is sold.

That way, at least the seller will be able to recoup the money as part of the sales agreement,” she continued.

December 10, 2013

End of Year Fundraiser

 Please join me on Monday, December 16th at Turtle Soup 
(113 Ocean Road in Narragansett)
 and consider bringing a donation of a box or can of cereal, instant oatmeal, peanut butter,  tuna, or Mac n' Cheese for the Jonnycake Center's school vacation week breakfast and lunch program. 
I hope to see you and your family on Monday the 16th!

October 13, 2013

The little drone that could

EDITORIAL                                                                                                                 Providence Journal

The eyes of UConn are upon you. Or apparently, they one day could be, should you happen onto the University of Connecticut campus. UConn, The Journal recently learned, was the only New England institution among 81 entities that (so far) have applied for federal permission to fly drones. But as the small, unmanned craft show increasing promise as surveillance tools, that list is certain to grow.
In a pair of fascinating but chilling stories published on Sept. 22, Journal staff writers G. Wayne Miller and Paul Edward Parker charted the promise and perils of civilian drone use. Though the technology is still in its early stages, an industry trade group, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, predicts that drones will add $9.1 billion to the economy over the next decade. Drones could be used to enhance news and weather coverage, survey land, manage disasters, locate missing people and corner criminals.
The drawback, of course, is that they pose a profound new threat to privacy. Experimenting with a small “hobby” drone purchased for $300 at the Wrentham Premium Outlets, Messrs. Miller and Parker were able to record surprisingly clear images of a state representative, Teresa Tanzi, as she moved about her backyard. Privacy fencing was no real obstacle for the drone; it even gazed through sliding glass doors to capture a detailed image of Ms. Tanzi’s bedroom.
A Democrat representing South Kingstown, Representative Tanzi had supplied permission for the experiment, to dramatize the need for laws restricting drone use. But even she was surprised at how disquieting the experience was. Last year, Ms. Tanzi sponsored a drone bill that never reached a vote. She expects to reintroduce this year. Two state senators, Nicholas Kettle (R-Coventry) and Dawson Hodgson (R-North Kingstown) introduced similar legislation.
These legislators are on the right track. A legal framework for the use of this rapidly evolving technology is badly needed. Certainly, drones can become an invaluable tool for law enforcement. But, as with wiretaps, warrants should generally be required. Other steps can be taken to minimize government intrusion, as well as private mischief.
During the next General Assembly session, Rhode Islanders should add their voices to the debate, and ensure that a good balance is struck between individual privacy and the public interest.

October 1, 2013

Parents, teachers decry NECAP graduation requirements at forum

By    Dan McGowan /

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – As thousands of students across the state prepare to take the NECAP exam, parents, educators and elected officials gathered Monday to again call for state officials to scrap the controversial graduation requirement that ties a high school diploma to performance on the standardized test.
More than 40 adults attended a two-hour forum at Rhode Island College, largely beating the drum on some of the most common critiques of the NECAP component of the state’s graduation requirements:
The test is unfair to English language learners and students with learning disabilities; students aren’t being adequately prepared in earlier grades; and the graduation requirement forces educators to “teach to the test,” eliminating the opportunity for students to receive a well-rounded education.
“Test scores shouldn’t bring teachers to tears, parents to tears or students to tears,” Julie Motta, the director of education in East Providence schools, told the crowd.
The NECAP - which is also administered in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire - is given to students grades 3 through 8 and again in 11th grade. Beginning with the class of 2014, students must score "partially proficient" on the math and English portions of the test or show growth when they retake the exam in order to earn a diploma.
The test begins statewide Tuesday.
As it stands now, approximately 4,000 students – roughly 40% of 12th graders - must improve their scores on the NECAP in order to be eligible to graduate.  In Providence, more than 80% of students at four high schools—Alvarez, Central, Hope and Mount Pleasant—have to retake the test.
“It hurts me to think about my friends not being able to continue on and do what they want to do just because this test says so,” Hector Perea, a member of the Providence Student Union, said during the forum.
Monday’s forum was organized by several members of the R.I. House of Representatives, including Providence Rep. Maria Cimini, Warwick Democrats Eileen Naughton and Frank Ferri and Teresa Tanzi of Narragansett. The legislators did not invite anyone from the state Department of Education to attend the event, according to a spokeswoman for Education Commissioner Deborah Gist.
Cimini, a Democrat serving her second term in the legislature, indicated she favors testing, but not as a graduation requirement. She acknowledged that there was no clear goal for the forum, and warned that education policy is largely overseen by the state’s 11-member Board of Education, not the General Assembly.
But that hasn’t stopped legislative leaders and other prominent politicians – including Providence Mayor Angel Taveras – from calling on state officials to back away from the graduation requirement, at least for the class of 2014. In one of its final acts of the 2013 legislative session, the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed a joint resolution urging the Board of Education to reconsider the mandate.
“The other New England states do not use the NECAP for the purpose Rhode Island is using it for,” Naughton told the crowd.
Students who fail to earn a qualifying score in the 11th grade have the opportunity to retake the exam twice during their senior year and are eligible to use scores from other tests – such as an AP exam, the SAT or the Accuplacer – in order to meet the requirement. Students only need to show improvement when they take the NECAP exam in 12th grade – meaning they could still graduate without showing partial proficiency on the test.
In addition to the NECAP component of the graduation requirements, students are also required to complete course work, as well as performance assessments such as a portfolio or senior project, to prove they are qualified to receive a diploma.
“I believe we need to have a measure that we judge our work by, I believe that public education is our legacy” Rep. Lisa Tomasso, D-Coventry, said. Tomasso acknowledged she was one of the few NECAP supporters at the forum.
Board of Education Chairwoman Eva-Marie Mancuso and Gist, the education commissioner, have both pledged their support for standardized testing to be one component of the state’s graduation requirements. In September, Mancuso said she wants to wait until the current year’s NECAP scores are returned before making a decision on whether to keep the requirement in place for the class of 2014.
Rhode Island will phase out the NECAP exam and begin administering the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam during the 2014-15 school year. That test will be taken in 22 states.
Dan McGowan ( ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan