Lawmakers may create new RI secretary of education

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island lawmakers are exploring whether to create a new position of secretary of education as they seek to close the gap with Massachusetts on student performance, a top senator confirmed Thursday.

“The Senate and House are in discussions regarding education reform initiatives, and we will be making an announcement soon,” Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Hanna Gallo said in a statement. “The secretary of education model is among the various options that we are examining.”

House spokesperson Larry Berman also confirmed the talks, saying the two Democratic-controlled chambers are working “on joint education initiatives to be finalized in the coming weeks.”

Gallo and her House counterpart, Rep. Joe McNamara, have been engaged in ongoing behind-the-scenes discussions to seek a consensus on shifting education policy. Two lawmakers with influence on the subject, Sen. Ryan Pearson and Rep. Gregg Amore, are also involved. Pearson and Amore addressed the Rhode Island Association of School Committees about the efforts earlier this month.

The news comes a day after Post-Secondary Education Commissioner Brenda Dann-Messier announced plans to retire, and soon after a proposal by Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Efficiency Commission to save $1 million by merging Dann-Messier’s office with others. (Dann-Messier’s aides say her decision was unrelated.) It also comes as Raimondo’s newly named education commissioner, Angélica Infante-Green, prepares to succeed Ken Wagner this month.

The release late last year of results from the first-ever Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS) exam injected new energy into the debate over education locally. Only 34% of Rhode Island students in grades three through eight were proficient in English language arts and just 27% were proficient in math; in Massachusetts by comparison, 51% of students were proficient in English and 47% were proficient in math.

It’s unclear what additional authority lawmakers are prepared to invest in a secretary of education, but there is precedent for such a step: when the General Assembly was struggling to reboot economic development following the 38 Studios debacle, legislators decided to centralize power in the new office of secretary of commerce.

Massachusetts has a secretary of education who oversees public schools at all levels, from pre-K through college.

There are also education efforts happening outside state government. The Rhode Island Foundation has been convening discussions between more than two dozen education stakeholders, including state and local officials, union leaders and advocates, to explore new K-12 policies.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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