Interview: Soon-to-be Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee on COVID-19 Response and Using Community-Based Afterschool Programs to Make Up For Lost Learning
Significant changes are underway in the smallest state of the nation.
Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, in the midst of her second term, has been chosen by the Biden administration to serve as the U.S. commerce secretary. Following a favorable Senate hearing on January 26th and a preliminary committee vote of 21-3 in Raimondo’s favor, she is expected to relocate to Washington once her confirmation is voted upon by the full Senate in the coming days or weeks. In the meantime, Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee, a former small-town mayor, is preparing to assume the highest position in the state.
During Raimondo’s tenure as Governor, Rhode Island gained recognition for swiftly transitioning its schools to remote learning when COVID-19 initially struck. The state also made national headlines for aggressively advocating the return of students to classrooms in the latter months of 2020, largely thanks to the governor’s efforts.
As Raimondo transfers several crucial education matters, such as charter school expansions, plans to address learning loss during the ongoing pandemic, and a state takeover of the Providence district, the individual taking up the baton is no stranger to public schools.
During his political career as the Mayor of Cumberland, McKee made education a central focus. He introduced an innovative model of public charter schools, requiring these academies to enroll students from neighboring districts to ensure diverse classrooms. Additionally, at least one mayor from these towns serves as a board member. This mayoral charter model has yielded promising outcomes and has been implemented in various parts of Rhode Island.
McKee steps into the position of Governor at a time when concerns for students are widespread. He discusses his bold ideas for addressing the "COVID slide," teacher vaccinations, and the future of the Providence takeover.
The following interview has been abridged and clarified.
: Rhode Island is currently experiencing rapid changes. What education issues are at the forefront of your mind?
McKee: The most pressing issue at the moment is undoubtedly COVID and its impact on education. Vaccinations are also a priority, particularly for teachers, following the vaccinations of the most vulnerable individuals. Our main focus right now is getting students back into classrooms.
Long-term, my work builds upon what I accomplished as a mayor. Rhode Island has 39 cities and towns, and we want to ensure that all municipal leaders are actively involved in supporting student learning.
During my time as mayor, I successfully advocated for the establishment of a municipal education department. It focused on early childhood education and extended all the way through high school. This department has been a valuable resource. We offer programs for young children up to high school students, covering subjects such as reading, math, art, music, science, civics, and entrepreneurial strategies. These programs operate year-round to supplement in-school learning.
Now that I will be in a position of influence, I want to encourage all 39 cities and towns to adopt a similar approach, especially given the backdrop of COVID and the loss of learning time. Regardless of income level, ethnicity, school type, or gender, addressing the learning loss should be a top priority.
Creating municipal education departments statewide, similar to what I accomplished in Cumberland, provides a concrete strategy to address the lost learning hours. In Cumberland, this model has been operating successfully for 15 years. When schools resume, our districts will face significant challenges in running a normal day. It will be virtually impossible for them to catch up within the available time frame for younger students.
Many people are discussing the issue of the "COVID slide" and how to help students catch up. Could you please elaborate on the structure of these municipal education departments?
Currently, the focus is on tailoring the model to meet the specific needs of different communities within the state. For example, if there is a language barrier that hinders learning, we can implement a language conversion strategy to address that issue and encourage learning.
Furthermore, by collaborating with school districts, I, as the governor, would have the opportunity to ensure statewide support, including from the Rhode Island Department of Education. This opens up even more possibilities. For instance, we could make use of school facilities outside of regular school hours for this program. Alternatively, we can follow the approach we took in converting a 6,000-square-foot space in the library, which now serves as a daily academic program for children.
Not only is this approach highly cost-effective, but it also allows us to make the most of the investments made on an annual basis. We also offer program fees for families who can afford them and no program fees for those who cannot, ensuring sustainability from a program strategy perspective.
These municipal education departments can play a vital role in addressing the learning time lost in a deliberate and intentional manner. While it may not cover all the lost time, it will definitely give us a head start.
It’s truly fascinating. I’ve never come across anything like this before.
Precisely, it is indeed a unique initiative. I have enacted it through legislation, which means it is embedded in the budget and integrated into the tax rate. Additionally, I am considering using some of the stimulus funding earmarked for education to spearhead these initiatives across the state of Rhode Island.
Are you contemplating linking stimulus money to the establishment of these departments?
Yes, I am considering it. I believe I have identified a way to provide initial funding to help communities incorporate these departments into their budgets. So, the answer is yes.
Just to clarify, would cities only be eligible for education-related stimulus funds if they take steps towards establishing a municipal education department?
We would only utilize a small portion of the funds that could be allocated to communities for district schools. We would still distribute funds in an equitable manner. Additionally, we would reserve some funds to initiate municipal education centers in as many communities as are interested in implementing them.
You were often regarded as a mayor’s lieutenant governor. How do you think mayors feel about the idea of municipal education departments in their respective locales?
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, several mayors were contemplating the enactment of their own statutes and the establishment of these offices. We will begin with communities that express interest. Once we provide resources, which I believe we can do through the federal stimulus programs, I think more people will actively consider this idea.
This territory is not one that mayors typically venture into. However, when we talk about the loss of learning time and the realization that our school districts are already overwhelmed with their current responsibilities, it is more likely that we will see a partnership between mayors’ offices and school departments.
Shifting the focus to the charter schools that you helped establish, could you tell me about the inspiration behind them?
Certainly. It was actually the children I coached in basketball during my time at the Boys & Girls Club. We played at a highly competitive level and even won a couple of state tournaments and competed in four national tournaments.
Unfortunately, many of these kids, who were primarily from disadvantaged backgrounds, were not prepared to take any classes when it was time for them to attend a local community college. This was a wake-up call for me. I had always assumed that everyone had equal educational opportunities, but this experience showed me otherwise.
During my time at the Harvard Kennedy School, I began considering the involvement of mayors in education. In my hometown, we were facing challenges and failures in our schools. So, we started to ask ourselves, what would a public school look like if we created it from scratch? How would it function? That’s where the inspiration for the mayoral charter schools came from.
Title: Intentionally Diverse Charter Schools: Rhode Island’s Blackstone Valley Prep Promotes Inclusion Across Race and Socioeconomic Status, Emphasizing College Readiness
Rhode Island’s Blackstone Valley Prep has expanded its reach, establishing two new mayoral academies, one in northern Rhode Island and the other in Providence. While the number of charter schools currently in operation is sufficient, approval for additional charters will enable further growth in the coming years. However, our primary focus is on improving district schools to ensure the success of all students. In this article, we explore the approach we plan to take and the challenges we face.
Improving District Schools:
Our objective is to collaborate with existing structures without imposing unrealistic demands. We aim to create partnerships and actively listen to educators and labor groups running these schools. By engaging in open dialogue, we can identify areas for improvement and work towards implementing effective changes. Taking a patient yet courageous approach, we emphasize the need to address ongoing challenges, exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19, especially in Providence, currently operating under a takeover model.
The Future of Providence in the Takeover:
It is too early to determine the exact course of action for Providence’s education system under the takeover. To bring about positive change, we must refrain from imposing a unilateral approach. Respect for the professionals working in classrooms is crucial, along with the recognition that the education system has existed for a considerable period. Therefore, while progress may take time, we remain committed to advocating for the best interests of students.
Enhancing School Funding:
The state of school funding amidst budget limitations remains uncertain. The availability of federal stimulus will significantly impact the outcome. We believe in a funding formula that accounts for high-cost students, where local communities contribute up to a threshold, with the state assuming responsibility afterward. This strategy, tied to measurable outcomes, ensures a sensible distribution of resources.
The Rhode Island Promise Program:
Regarding the Rhode Island Promise Program, initiated by Governor Raimondo to provide two years of free community college to in-state students, our intention is to support its continuation, particularly at the community college level. With the election of President Biden, we anticipate increased federal support, including higher Pell Grants. Consequently, the future appears promising for Rhode Island students.
Governor Raimondo’s Legacy and Departure from Her Policies:
It is up to journalists to assess our policy differences. As for Governor Raimondo’s legacy in education, she made commendable efforts to improve the state’s educational landscape. Nevertheless, we believe there is room for further enhancement and are committed to striving for better outcomes.
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