Rhode Island needs energy. A series of power plant closings and maxed out pipelines have left the state –  and much of the New England area – in need of alternative sources of energy. The state needs a solution that would generate enough energy to compensate for this growing energy shortage.

Enter: Invenergy, the Chicago-based energy company which, in 2015, proposed the construction of an energy center in the town of Burrillville, RI. The $700 million Clear River Energy Facility would be the largest natural gas center in New England and would to add 900 megawatts of energy to the state grid. Though natural gas is still a fossil fuel, its production emits fewer carbon emissions than coal powered plants. Thus, it may fulfil short term energy needs while also acting as a segue to renewable energy.

In reaction, many Rhode Island environmentalists have protested the proposal of this plant. Natural gas facilities, though they contribute less to greenhouse emissions, still burn non-renewable fossil fuels, one of the leading factors of climate change. This plant is specifically an issue for environmentalists as well because Invenergy has not provided all of the pertinent information for the environmental impact advisory opinions to return conclusively. They have also supported the pending Energy Facility Siting Act, which will stall the Rhode Island Siting Board  from making a final decision on the Burrillville plant until the advisory opinions are returned conclusively.

There is a very clear argument for the complete and immediate halt of all fossil fuel usage. Climate change is aggressive and the political response to it should be as, if more, aggressive. Environmental agencies such as Fighting Against Natural Gas (FANG) have publicly called for this termination of fossil fuel usage.

These concerns are not purely alarmist; even the past year alone has shown the sheer magnitude of climate change. Just last week, a glacier the size of Manhattan broke off from an ice shelf in Antarctica following a one trillion ton iceberg that broke away in July. Additionally, the especially destructive power of hurricanes Harvey and Irma have been linked to the increasing severity of climate change.

However, the provision of energy to Rhode Island residents is a glaring issue that cannot be overshadowed by the pursuit of a single ideal, environmentally conscious solution. Rather, Rhode Island needs a varied and multifaceted approach that can be implemented across a variety of sectors.  A process to transition to renewable energy is already in place in Rhode Island. Though a slow transition cannot aggressively combat climate change by itself, alongside carbon emission targets and close maintenance of existing facilities, significant progress can be made.

First, even in light of Governor Raimondo’s plan for Rhode Island to contribute 1,000 megawatts of clean energy (primarily solar, wind, and hydropower) to the state grid by 2020, there  will still not be enough to compensate for the projected energy shortage the state is preparing for. This past August, the National Grid was approved to increase energy costs from 16 to 21 percent due to statewide energy shortages. Rhode Island is not ready to abandon fossil fuels; currently, only less than 4 percent of electricity generated in the state is from renewable energy sources.

California, another state which relies heavily on natural gas, is facing a similar issue. However, the state has proposed a more ambitious plan which will move it towards 100% renewable energy by 2045. This goal requires that big renewable energy projects begin their growth now in order to reach the goal within the next 30 years.

“With an immediate transition to renewable energy not being a viable option, the next best solution is to monitor and limit the already existing sources of carbon emission while steadily developing alternative sources of clean energy. “

However, the quick growth of renewable energy centers has been viewed with scrutiny by environmental activists. In 2008, the development of a solar plant in Southern California was protested due to its threat to desert wildlife such as the Mojave ground squirrel and the desert tortoise. This past June, a solar power project proposed in California’s Panoche Valley was stalled because it would further threaten an endangered rat population.

The issue with any rapid development is the threat it poses to the surrounding environment. While renewable energy centers can drastically cut down on the release of carbon into the atmosphere, their industrious development often requires the displacement and destruction of local wildlife. So, although a full transition to clean energy is certainly attainable, this transition will inevitably threaten the environment. The time for compromise has not truly passed, however – the most effective solution in California thus far has been the steady expansion of solar and wind farms, not immediate development.

Alongside this steady development, Rhode Island also has an existing program to manage and decrease the carbon emissions from pre-existing companies, including the natural gas power plants. In 2012, Rhode Island implemented the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Under this cap and trade policy, the state gives a certain number of permits to companies that dictates the  maximum level of carbon emission allowed. Unused permits can be sold on the market to companies in need of a higher emission limit. This allows the state to directly control exact emission levels by adding or removing permits from the market. This policy provides monetary incentives to emit as little carbon as possible. Additionally, the state can directly control the amount of carbon emitted over time by adjusting the amount of permits available on the market.

However, this method is only effective alongside the state’s continued investment in renewable energy. On its own it may slow the progress of global warming, but it cannot otherwise begin to reverse or rectify the impacts thereof.

Herein lies the necessity of consistent monitoring of development and power plants. These solutions are not viable if there continues to be a growth of negative environmental impacts. Rhode Island’s cap and trade program only applies to carbon dioxide emissions, not the litany of other gases, such as methane, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons that also contribute to global warming.

To this point, the power should be built- as long as all of the environmental impact information is known. In order to ensure this, the Energy Facility Siting Act needs to pass. This will stall the Rhode Island Siting Board from making a final decision on the Burrillville plant until the advisory opinions are returned conclusively. If the project is approved, this will allow the plant to be built with full knowledge of its impacts.

The best solution for conservation development in Rhode Island is a hybrid policy of both weaning off all coal and other fossil fuels and investing in renewable energy. With an immediate transition to renewable energy not being a viable option, the next best solution is to monitor and limit the already existing sources of carbon emission while steadily developing alternative sources of clean energy.  

Unfortunately, however, this alone cannot solve climate change. Activists are valid in the assertion that we are not doing enough. The policy as proposed is an effective solution for transitioning to clean energy in Rhode Island and states, like California, that already have clean energy plans and goals. It combats the energy crisis and leaves way for investment in renewable energy centers. However, in order to significantly combat climate change and energy shortages, these strides need to be taken nationally. While Rhode Island can efficiently minimize its carbon footprint, the United States still needs an overarching plan to incentivize clean energy policies nationally.

Americans everywhere on the political spectrum agree: Today, equality of opportunity is more a dream than a reality. Almost two-thirds of Americans believe only a small minority of privileged people have a chance to excel in today’s economy. Examples of inequality of opportunity are often painfully present, from crumbling schools to the school-to-prison pipeline. But these stark manifestations of inequality tend to obfuscate the identity of their more hidden cousins, ones so transparent they are tough to spot in a glass of water.

Rocketed into news coverage by the Flint water crisis but then quickly forgotten, lead exposure is an issue that often slips from the public consciousness. Yet it is a pernicious cause, and symptom of inequality. Across the country, at least 4 million households—10 percent of all households with children—are exposed to high levels of lead. The Center for Disease Control recommends intervention at blood lead levels (BLLs) above five micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dl). Over half a million American children exceed that threshold during their first five years of life, exposing them to serious problems at a time when the human body is most susceptible to the long-term effects of lead. At very high levels, lead exposure in children causes immediate consequences. The metal attacks multiple body systems, disrupting impulse control, attention span, and even overall mental functioning.

Across American households, inequality of exposure is the central injustice of this epidemic: It is a matter of opportunity, not just one of health.

In Rhode Island, the problem of lead exposure is dire: The state has three times the average number of children with BLLs over 10 mcg/dl. More than 1,000 Rhode Island children are poisoned annually. Almost 1 in 5 rental homes in Providence are serviced by utility-owned pipes made of lead, owing to the fact that the city, like many of its ilk, has a particularly old housing stock. Although lead pipes are common, the burden of this epidemic is not shared equally. Across American households, the inequality of exposure is the central injustice of this epidemic: It is a matter of opportunity, not just one of health.

In her May 2017 National Bureau of Economic Research study, Anna Aizer, an economist at Brown University, published data on lead and juvenile delinquency among Rhode Island youth. The paper, coauthored by Janet Currie of Princeton University, is crucial in advancing the understanding of lead exposure as an issue of social justice and inequality of opportunity.

Aizer’s study capitalizes on a dataset of blood lead levels from the state’s robust screening program. Between 1990 and 2004, 120,000 children born in Rhode Island were tested at various stages of childhood development. Aizer and Currie first note that low-income and minority children in the state are more likely to live in urban neighborhoods. Inhabitants of urban areas are more susceptible to lead exposure due to the greater likelihood of high traffic congestion and older housing, two major sources of lead pollution. The study further confirms that the burden of lead exposure is disproportionately placed upon the shoulders of low-income people and people of color in Rhode Island, as is the case in many communities across the nation. While the average BLL of white children in the dataset was 3.4 mcg/dl, African-American and Hispanic children had levels 65 percent and 53 percent higher, respectively—both above the level recommended for intervention. This burden was also disproportionately borne by low-income families: The average BLL of children who qualified for free school lunch was 50 percent higher than that of those who did not.

Lead exposure is profoundly disruptive for children. For every unit increase in BLL, the probability of school suspension increased from 6.4 to 9.3 percent. These disruptions correspond to academic deficits: An August 2016 study from Professors Aizer and Currie found that for every one unit increase in BLL, the probability of a student scoring substantially below proficiency in reading rose by 3.1 percentage points. Outside of the classroom, the effects are even worse: The researchers found the same increase in BLL augmented the likelihood of incarceration by up to 74 percent.

Elizabeth Tobin-Tyler, a lawyer and professor at Brown’s Alpert Medical School, emphasizes a central absurdity in how we approach lead poisoning: “Most of our systems are about what happens after a kid gets poisoned as opposed to creating systems and structures that ensure we are addressing the problem before the exposure happens.” Indeed, the current way of dealing with lead is reactive, with action usually beginning after exposure in a child has been reported. Furthermore, systems generally place the burden on tenants to report possible lead hazards, intimidating would-be reporters by allowing the possibility of retributive eviction. The status quo thus forces low-income tenants to choose between adequate living standards and having a place to stay, often silencing the victims of lead exposure.

Current regulations in the Ocean State have simply not gone far enough to address the problem. Providence Water, a department of the city, will replace lead lines from the water main to the curbs, but it is not allowed to use ratepayer funds to address lead pipes on private property, a system known as “partial pipe replacement.” This leaves the onus of replacing lead pipes on property owners themselves. Particularly for those lacking the finances to personally pay for removal or renting from an unwilling landlord, this burden is often too high. Worse, as the neighborhood of Mount Hope in Providence discovered in 2010, this “partial pipe replacement” can exacerbate the problem: By disrupting the pipes and inadvertently exposing water to increased levels of lead, partial pipe replacement is often accompanied by spikes in lead levels in the short term.

Despite these challenges, Rhode Island has made some recent strides in advancing preventative measures. In 2002, the state passed the Lead Hazard Mitigation Act, giving landlords an affirmative duty to assess and fix lead hazards, perform ongoing lead maintenance, and obtain a lead hazard conformance certificate. While the law was a substantial step forward, weak enforcement has hindered its effectiveness: Between 2005 and 2009, 4 out of 5 of properties subject to the law did not comply with the regulations.

Summoning the will to address these regulatory inadequacies has proven easier said than done. The first hurdle, unsurprisingly, is a financial one. Replacing a large service line containing lead costs between $2,000 and $3,000—meaning it would take about $95 million to replace the nearly 38,000 lead service lines owned by Providence Water, Rhode Island’s largest supplier. As of August 2017, Providence Water began offering a three-year, zero percent interest loan to homeowners in need of replacing lead service lines. However, even at such terms, the program remains inaccessible to thousands of low-income Rhode Islanders.

To motivate action, then, politicians should look to the social benefits of removing lead. Research suggests that although the initial investment would be expensive, the ultimate social rewards—in the form of less crime, higher productivity, and lower medical costs—would be worth the price. Research from PEW Charitable Trusts explains that, across the country, removing lead service lines and eliminating lead paint from low-income homes with young children would see returns over time of about $1.33 per dollar invested.

The lead exposure debate here in Rhode Island and across the country requires elected officials to embrace short term investment for a long-term reward—a difficult campaign platform for officials who might no longer be in office by the time society reaps the benefits. There is good reason for optimism, however, even in the face of this daunting task: The Aizer and Currie studies strongly suggest that reducing lead exposure would offer children greater impulse control, decreased rates of juvenile delinquency, and improved school performance. While acknowledging that it comes with real costs, fixing the problems of lead should be seen as a safe investment in improving social outcomes for those whom our society most often fails. Eradicating lead exposure is an imperative task for a society intent on pursuing justice, and Providence might just be the place to start.

There is a growing consensus across the country — and across the aisle — that the US is in desperate need of criminal justice reform to end the era of mass incarceration. Politicians along the political spectrum discuss the need to end mandatory minimum sentences, reduce the use of private prisons, and put a stop to the school-to-prison pipeline. An issue that is less often discussed is the need for reform in the juvenile justice system, despite the fact that spending time in a juvenile detention facility is the single greatest factor in predicting adult incarceration.

Research shows that incarcerating youth leads to high recidivism rates and an overall decrease in public safety, in addition to being less cost effective than investing in education or community-based rehabilitation programs.

In the US, most kids have committed acts of delinquency that could land them in a secure detention facility. And while most of these juveniles simply stop committing criminal acts as they mature, those who are caught and sentenced to time in juvenile prisons become more likely to commit crime later in life. In fact, youths who have spent time in juvenile prisons have a stunning 70% chance of being arrested or returned to a secure facility in the year after their release.

To make matters worse, placing youths in secure detention facilities harms their ability to enter and remain in the workforce, and reduces the likelihood of high school completion, which both contribute to a higher likelihood of criminal behavior. So while detention facilities are supposed to help us rehabilitate the nation’s most at-risk youth, they actually end up doing more harm than good for the juveniles who get roped into the system. They also do little to improve public safety. Throughout the 1990s, there was a nationwide panic about so-called “super-predators” wreaking havoc on American cities. During this period, many states passed harsher sentencing laws, leading to a sharp increase in incarcerated youth. The juvenile crime rate peaked in 1994 then started to fall across the board, dropping at the highest rate in states that did not pass tough-on-crime laws for juveniles. And despite an overall decrease in juvenile crime, the number of kids detained in secure facilities continued to rise.

Discoveries about the harmful effects of incarceration have caused the number of juveniles committed to detention facilities to steadily decrease over the past 18 years, from nearly 78,000 juveniles in 1999 to around 35,000 in 2013. Many states are trying to find a juvenile justice system that works, by decreasing the number of juveniles held in detention facilities and trying out new community-based rehabilitation programs instead.

The presence of alternative hearing boards have not been sufficient to address racial and economic disparities present in the state’s juvenile detention centers. In 2013, Black adolescents made up 26% of the population at the RI Training School despite only comprising 6% of the population in Rhode Island, and Hispanic youth made up 38% of population at RI Training School compared to 21% of the total population.

The “Missouri Model” is hailed by juvenile justice experts as a way for states to save on the high cost of mass juvenile incarceration centers. Instead, juvenile offenders are placed in small, low-security rehabilitation centers near their homes, most of them with fewer than 10 inmates. And despite a decreased reliance on secured facilities, Missouri has one of the lowest rates of recidivism in the country. This model uses evidence-based programs such as Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care (MTFC), Multisystemic Therapy (MST), and Functional Family Therapy (FFT) which aim to keep children out of detention centers altogether, and instead provide support and resources to strengthen kids’ connections with their families and communities. In MTFC programs, youths are placed in specially trained foster homes for short periods of time rather than in large detention facilities. Several other states have started replacing the old model with these methods, and it has proven to be largely effective: after Florida started using primarily MST and FFT programs in lieu of incarceration, juvenile offenders were 35% less likely to end up in adult prison, and taxpayers saved an estimated $41 million over four years.

The state of Rhode Island has taken several steps in reforming the juvenile justice system, and has succeeded in decreasing the number of children in state custody. Between 2004 and 2013, the annual total number of youth held at the Rhode Island Training School, the state’s only secure residential facility for juvenile delinquents, declined from 1,069 to 498. The state has also been relying increasingly on alternatives to formal court hearings such as the Truancy Court and the Juvenile Drug Court, which provide educational services, enroll youth in drug treatment programs as needed, and provide court supervision for adolescents rather than detaining them at a residential facility. In addition, there are 34 Juvenile Hearing Boards (JHBs) throughout the state of Rhode Island — in March 2017, Providence was the most recent Rhode Island community to establish one.  The Providence JHB is made up of seven members appointed by the City Council, with the goal of keeping youth out of the formal court system and referring them to community resources. JHBs allow juveniles accused of nonviolent misdemeanors to be diverted from family court. The boards can impose sanctions such as counseling or required community service hours rather than more harmful punishments including probation or detention.

Despite the fact that Rhode Island has made some marked improvements in decriminalizing juvenile offenders, the state still has a long way to go before it can boast a completely fair and effective system. For instance, although research suggests that JHBs result in fewer placements in residential facilities and reduced recidivism compared to the formal juvenile court system, in 2013, the most recent year with data available, JHBs in Rhode Island only heard 404 cases, while the RI Family Court heard over 4,000. Additionally, many JHBs have strict rules about which types of offenses, and offenders, they are willing to hear. For instance, many JHBs only review cases for first-time offenders, which automatically places anyone with previous offenses in the formal court system, regardless of the type of crime. So, although JHBs in Rhode Island may be good for first-time offenders, they do little to help prevent the most vulnerable children from being dragged even deeper into the system. And in practice, a majority of the cases heard by formal Family Courts are for non-serious crimes: only 4% of the offenses referred to the RI Family Court between 2000 and 2014 were violent crimes.  

Additionally, the presence of alternative hearing boards have not been sufficient to address racial and economic disparities present in the state’s juvenile detention centers. In 2013, Black adolescents made up 26% of the population at the RI Training School despite only comprising 6% of the population in Rhode Island, and Hispanic youth made up 38% of population at RI Training School compared to 21% of the total population. Likewise, youth from the four “core cities” (Providence, Woonsocket, Pawtucket, and Central Falls), where over two-thirds of the children in Rhode Island below the poverty line reside, are more likely to be referred to Family Court than children in the rest of the state.

These disparities will continue to persist as long as RI ignores the root causes of juvenile crime, including the absence of a stable home life. RI is famous for having one of the most dismal child welfare systems in the country – one report from a non-profit called The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform called Rhode Island the “child warehousing capital of America.” Indeed, Rhode Island’s Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), which operates both the foster care system and the Rhode Island Training School, has a history of corruption and inefficiency, which has put vulnerable children and communities in an even graver risk of institutionalization. Nevertheless, the Rhode Island General Assembly has cut funding for the DCYF by $132 million over the past 10 years, when adjusted for inflation. So although the state has paid lip service to the importance of relying less on juvenile incarceration, they have shown little commitment to addressing the causes of juvenile delinquency and instituting alternatives to youth detention.

Although it is commendable that Rhode Island has established alternatives to the formal court system throughout the state and shown a sharp decrease in the number of children housed in secure detention facilities, the state needs to go further to address the roots of juvenile delinquency.  Rhode Island should be investing money into child welfare programs and community resources to prevent crime among the most vulnerable part of the population instead of focusing on rehabilitating or punishing the kids who get caught up in the system. We need to lock up fewer children — but we also need to help them before they are caught committing crimes in the first place.

 

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Last April, Brown University’s Undergraduate Finance Board told student-run publications on campus that it could no longer afford to pay for their printing expenses, citing a tightened budget and a greater demand for funding from other student groups. The decision was announced abruptly, catching many organizations by surprise – but it was not at all unreasonable. “Printing costs take up a significant portion of our allocation,” the UFB wrote in an email, “and it isn’t a sustainable practice for the Student Activities Fund.” Money is not a renewable resource, and the UFB has the right to hold to account the organizations that rely on its funds. But last semester’s budgetary hoopla does introduce an interesting set of questions: What constitutes “a sustainable practice” for UFB? What constitutes a practice that is worthwhile and meaningful for the broader community? And, in this fraught moment – when all the established rules of American politics seem to have turned upside down – what purpose do student-run publications serve?

It is true that printing is expensive and environmentally unfriendly. As such, it would be wise for campus publications to think deeply about their printing habits and consider migrating to digital platforms as a partial substitute for their print material. But a narrow emphasis on fiscal considerations fails to address why schools have and support student-run publications in the first place. Obviously, we don’t pay for campus publications because it is the financially optimal choice.

Admittedly, the reasons for supporting these groups are not immediately practical, but they are far more important than the exigencies of balanced budgets. In broad terms, we pay for student-run publications because self-expression and deliberative discourse – inked onto real pages you can touch, flip through, and wave around angrily at a rally – are the lifeblood of a community committed to rigorous scholarship and intellectual courage. We pay for them because that sacred duty of citizenship – of writing op-eds and poetry and fiction, whatever it takes to transform emotion into organized action – is something that must be inculcated and nurtured in citizens, starting in college. And we pay for them because republics are tricky things to keep afloat, and a vibrant press is our best chance at training young people to be responsible stewards of our political system, of the aspirations and ideals that we – as a people – hold dear.

I, for one, have derived a tremendous amount of satisfaction from the publications found scattered around campus. The Brown Political Review was actually the first publication that ever bothered to publish what I had to say. Though it does not receive funding from UFB, it is nonetheless representative of the indispensability of student-run publications. Thanks to the Brown Political Review, I got the chance to express myself in a public setting, under the careful guidance of my peers, and to transform my own thoughts into a real product. Every student, on every campus, should have access to experiences like these.

Of course, I do have some reservations about my earlier contributions to the Brown Political Review. For example, many of the views I once entertained as a freshman “staff writer” no longer apply to me. In two years, I’ve learned that reality is more nuanced than my 1500-word polemics, and that it is impossible to have a sincere discussion about reality without carving out room in my own “writing” – if that word even applies – for that nuance. In retrospect, I wish that my contributions to this publication hadn’t been, for the most part, ill-conceived. I wish that I hadn’t bothered to defend absurd positions, like abolishing NATO – the one institution on this planet that deters Russia from ravaging Europe and resurrecting Soviet-style totalitarianism – or adopting a foreign policy that appeases Iran – which continues to support Bashar al-Assad’s barbaric crackdowns in Syria and is responsible for orchestrating brutal attacks on innocent civilians and American servicemen. But I am so thankful that I got the chance to entertain those thoughts and argue those opinions in this publication. After all, you don’t really figure out how terrible an outfit looks, or how awfully it fits you, until you try it on and walk around in it. And that, I suppose, is what campus publications are for: encouraging students to figure out what makes sense to them, and what doesn’t.

Above all, though, I’m thankful that there remains a community of students on this campus – and on campuses across the country – who care about politics and government and all the things that we so easily take for granted. Campus publications like the Brown Political Review may not be perfect, and may not bear the highest return-on-investment for those in charge of disbursing a finite amount of money for student activities. However, in indulging the imperfect ideas and impulses of its members, and in affording room for sincere reflection and thoughtful debate in a time when we could really do with a lot more of both, this publication – and all the others so lovingly crafted by our fellow students – does a priceless service to our school.

Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19 is a former staff writer for BPR’s Culture section

 

Court debt and bus fares are nothing more than a mild annoyance for most Rhode Islanders: a transaction accepted without second thought when taking the bus downtown or paying off a traffic ticket incurred on Waterman Street. But for the estimated 34 percent of Providence residents who live under the poverty line, these small fees have enormous ramifications. On issues ranging from housing to the judicial system, state policies place an undue burden on Rhode Island’s poorest residents, further burdening those who already struggle to pay rent or buy groceries. From the bus fare increases that solely target elderly and disabled passengers to court fines and cash bail fees, Rhode Island has quietly been pushed to the forefront of legal and legislative battles over the criminalization of poverty in the United States. These practices will continue to grow unheeded unless strong, continual efforts are made to challenge this regressive agenda seen at the municipal and state level.

Rhode Island’s battles reflect a wider nationwide trend: The United States has declared war on the poor. Since the beginning of the Reagan era, the erosion of the social safety net in the United States, coupled with draconian public policy and legislative decisions, has created an entrenched web of pitfalls and restrictions around poverty in American society. Much of this is due to the stigmatization of impoverished Americans. A Columbia University study showed that public opinion sharply deviated between the perceived “deserving poor” (such as the disabled) and an undeserving “underclass.” This notion of the “undeserving poor” has distinct racial undertones. For example, Aid for Dependent Families with Children ­­– the main form of cash assistance for low-income families until it was dismantled in 1996 – was called a “cesspool of fraud, waste, and abuse” after African-Americans joined the program. By evoking the racialized, pejorative term “welfare queen,” politicians have justified welfare cuts to such an extent that by 2014 only 23 percent of poor families received any type of cash assistance. Beyond benefits cuts, municipal governments and state legislatures discreetly passed laws that criminalized activities specifically associated with homelessness such as loitering in public parks, panhandling, and sleeping in vehicles. These laws are not only a misdirected attempt to address poverty, but actually are more costly to taxpayers: Cities spend, on average, $87 per day to jail a homeless person, but only $28 per day to provide them with shelter.

Worse, assuming that nationwide anti-poor sentiment will shield them from backlash, elected officials often vote to increase the cost of public services disproportionately used by low-income Americans in order to cut taxes. In extreme cases, local governments even use small fines and low-level violations to generate revenue. Notably, this tactic was used by law enforcement and elected officials in Ferguson, Missouri, a scheme uncovered by the infamous “Ferguson Report” released by the Department of Justice in the aftermath of the police shooting of Mike Brown. In Ferguson, these costs would often come at the expense of its poorest residents. One woman who was in and out of homelessness ended up paying over $1,000 and spending six nights in jail after illegally parking her car in 2007, triggering a cycle of debt-related incarceration all too familiar to America’s poorest.

Some methods of criminalizing the poor are far more subtle. For example, geographer Mike Davis studied how, in the late 1990s, cities such as Los Angeles developed public works projects designed to be specifically anti-homeless. Overhead sprinkler systems in city parks are timed to go off in the middle of the night and benches are constructed in a barrel shape to make sleeping impossible. In these cases, passing laws to criminalize sleeping in public is not even necessary, as design decisions have already rendered much of the city’s built environment inaccessible to the homeless.

Rhode Island is a poignant microcosm of the nationwide trend of poverty criminalization, recently becoming a staging ground for the debate surrounding the changing dynamics of the government’s role in the lives of poor and homeless Americans. Constitutionally dubious anti-panhandling legislation, which Providence was forced to abandon last year after threats of legal action from the Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU, has been reintroduced in suburban towns like Cranston and at the state level by both Democratic (H5210) and Republican (H5258) representatives. In the general assembly, these bills fine drivers and panhandlers between $75 and $500 dollars for “stopping to exchange items with persons outside a motor vehicle.” While this bill might threaten local drive-through restaurants, it will more urgently devastate the livelihoods of panhandlers. The reason behind the sudden proliferation of anti-poor ordinances, says Rhode Island outreach worker and homeless advocate Megan Smith, is simple: People who are genuinely uncomfortable with witnessing poverty tend to blame the wrong actors. “As panhandling has become more visible in places like Cranston and Warwick, it has gotten people involved who are not used to seeing such stark poverty. Yes, it’s upsetting to see someone who is panhandling,” Smith said, “but the reaction should not be upset with the individual who is doing it, but at the system which is not giving them a better option than panhandling to survive.” This sentiment is shared by advocates for homeless and impoverished Rhode Islanders, but is a hard sell to many in the general public who value self-sufficiency. The legislative proposals to fine panhandlers underscore just how deeply ingrained the notion of the “undeserving poor” has become in the public psyche. Even in a largely blue state like Rhode Island, this reality invites further stigmatization of low-income individuals.

Rhode Island is a poignant microcosm of the nationwide trend of poverty criminalization, recently becoming a staging ground for the debate surrounding the changing dynamics of the government’s role in the lives of poor and homeless Americans.

Nevertheless, Rhode Island’s rash of recently proposed anti-panhandling legislation is just a small look into the undue financial burden pushed onto poor Rhode Islanders. In November 2015, students led by Providence College Professor Eric Hirsh conducted an informal survey of pedestrians in Kennedy Plaza to document police interaction for minor infractions. What they found was striking: while only around half of those surveyed were homeless, 95 percent of citations and 94 percent of arrests were experienced by homeless or formerly homeless individuals. Some respondents reported receiving citations for activities such as laying down, receiving free food, or even having a pet, all of which were (and remain) perfectly legal in Rhode Island. To this day, outreach workers in Providence witness this type of discrimination on a regular basis. “One example that sticks out in my mind,” says Megan Smith, recalling an incident from late 2016, “is a woman with severe mental illness – self-evident to anyone who engages with her – who was sitting on the steps of a building with a backpack full of empty beer cans.” Smith continued, “She was going to take them across the state line to get 5 cents a can, but the cop didn’t like her sitting on the stoop. Her bag was searched, illegally, and the officer found the cans and charged her with open container even though they were empty. She spent the night in jail.”

In cases like the one described by Smith, where police harassment leads to arrest and incarceration, poor defendants often end up in municipal court. Common citations range from anti-loitering ordinances to carrying an open container of alcohol. In Providence, after Mayor Jorge Elorza’s administration stopped enforcing its panhandling ban, police continued to cite a state-level “failure to move” ordinance as a way to criminalize homelessness and those who panhandled within the city limits. Using this dubious work-around, police continually harassed homeless people with the threat of arrest if they did not follow orders. Over the past few months, a visible result of this policy has been the forced relocation of Providence’s homeless population from downtown areas (specifically around Kennedy Plaza and Burnside Park) to Broad Street and the economically disadvantaged South Side of the city.

Economic power plays a consequential role in the criminalization of poverty in Rhode Island. “[Groups such as] the Providence Downtown Improvement District see poverty as bad for them economically and so want to make it invisible.” Smith explained, “They also have a lot of sway over the police. When we talk to the police about why they act the way they do, a lot of what they say is that they are responding to complaints of the businesses.” Another tangible result of this policy is an increasing number of low-income Rhode Islanders appearing each day at municipal court. Rhode Islanders often face an exploitative relationship with the state judicial system, with the court leveraging fines and fees from the pockets of the most vulnerable. By criminalizing poverty in this manner, the state profits from its poorest residents.

In Rhode Island, this system can lead to a cycle of debt-related incarceration. At each part of the criminal justice process, defendants are charged with court fees. In civil cases, for example, there are fees for filing ($150), execution ($50), and citations ($25), plus the $17.50 processing fee that goes to a software technology corporation. If an individual is continually rearrested for failure to pay court fees, they can be at risk of serving a brief period at the Adult Correction Institute (ACI) in lieu of paying these fees. For low-level infractions, which are tried in municipal court, fines upwards of $100 are a common punishment doled out to homeless and low-income Rhode Islanders for minor infractions. “It’s common for homeless individuals to have multiple unpaid fines outstanding,” says municipal court public defender James Crowley. “And these costs add up, leading to warrants, subsequent arrests, and sometimes short ACI sentences. The judges in the municipal court are always willing to set up payment plans: They don’t always appreciate that even seemingly small fines can be onerous for poor people, or that paying a court fine might not be the top priority in a homeless person’s life,” Crowley added.

In 2015, approximately 1,556 adults (15 percent of the total number of commitments in municipal court) were arrested and committed to the Intake Center in Providence solely for failure to appear at a court payment date.

While de jure debt related incarceration for indigent individuals was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Bearden v. Georgia (1983), judges still have tremendous discretion in deciding whether defendants refused to pay or simply could not afford the fees. As a result, many courts incarcerate low-income offenders who fail to show up at debt-related proceedings for “failure to appear in court,” regardless of their income status. This loophole is exploited frequently in Rhode Island. In 2015, approximately 1,556 adults (15 percent of the total number of commitments in municipal court) were arrested and committed to the Intake Center in Providence solely for failure to appear at a court payment date. Arrested debtors owed an average of $1,082 in court debts upon commitment, and they were predominantly low-income and non-violent misdemeanor offenders with a mixed history of debt payment compliance. Over half (58 percent) of those arrested had previously experienced debt-related incarceration, and 52 percent of these received food stamps which legally qualifies them for payment exemptions of court fees. Yet judges abated the court costs of just three percent of arrested debtors in 2015. As a result of this practice, poor Rhode Islanders arrested for misdemeanors such as failing to move or panhandling often face jail time even for crimes intended to be punishable only by fines. According to Smith, until the municipal court hired a public defender two years ago due to intense pressure from advocates, these defendants were sentenced to upwards of a month in jail for low-level offenses like failure to move without any form of legal counsel. Over the past two months, this problem has returned with the state’s refusal to pay the municipal court public defender. Until this situation is resolved, low-income defenders will continue to go to jail without legal counsel for low-level offenses.

Jail time for simple, low-level offenses has profoundly negative effects. Even for a brief period of time, incarceration can significantly jeopardize a person’s employment status or housing security, requiring some to skip out on their rent. In a law unique to the Ocean State, an individual can even get their driver’s license suspended for failure to pay fines and surcharges, inhibiting one’s ability to move freely around the state. While proposed legislation at the state level (H5187) requires municipal courts to provide counsel for all low-income defendants at risk of jail time for court debt, increasing representation is not the only solution. Tackling debt-related incarceration and the criminalization of homelessness and poverty boils down to the municipal codes that allow individuals to go to jail for low-level, nonviolent offenses in the first place. Some towns in the state are already on the right path. In Central Falls, city officials have prevented violations of “failure to comply” or anti-panhandling ordinances from leading to jail time. Furthermore, judicial discretion must be implemented to rethink court fines and fees in cases where defendants cannot pay. The law already stipulates that individuals on food stamps can be exempted from these superfluous fees, but with anti-panhandling legislation and other proposed measures, it is more important than ever to remain vigilant.

Jail time for simple, low-level offenses has profoundly negative effects. Even for a brief period of time, incarceration can significantly jeopardize a person’s employment status or housing security, requiring some to skip out on their rent.

Finally, there is a larger narrative that the public must address. Americans must work to destigmatize poverty. According to a recent National Public Radio survey on Americans’ view of poverty, 48 percent of Americans see poverty as a result of “people not doing enough.” What most Americans don’t know is that an estimated 44 percent of the homeless population are employed on a full-time or part-time basis. In Rhode Island, 39 percent of the homeless or marginally housed are made up of families with children. The distance between perception and reality when it comes to impoverished Americans is striking and is reflected in discriminatory policy mechanisms that target the poor.

These next few months will be important for advocates wishing to address the criminalization of poverty in Rhode Island. Following a 5-4 vote on February 15 in which the Cranston City Council passed an anti-panhandling ordinance, the state legislature will vote on anti-panhandling bills over the next few months. At the same time, upstart activist groups such Signs of Providence are working to destigmatize homelessness and poverty in Rhode Island through a video campaign targeting legislators and the general public alike.

Uniquely entrenched legal mechanisms in Rhode Island have created a system where the state continually profits from and dismisses its poorest residents.

Uniquely entrenched legal mechanisms in Rhode Island have created a system where the state continually profits from and dismisses its poorest residents. Other residents, from students to lawyers, can work to change this reality for their neighbors; those who want to address systemic issues of injustice can begin by challenging the criminalization of poverty taking place in their own city.

Recent studies and current mentality shifts show that a high school education is no longer sufficient to prepare Americans for jobs in the 21st century. The Georgetown Public Policy Institute’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that as soon as 2020, more than 70% of the jobs currently available in Rhode Island will require some credential beyond a high school diploma. Only 45% of the state’s current population meets that mark.

Education has shifted from being a valuable building block to a necessity. There have been calls for free college, but many of these initiatives fall short of expectations. Take New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recently proposed “free college” proposal: Due to its stringent requirements, which called for students to complete an almost unreasonable 120 credit hours in four years, some New York politicians went so far as to call the program a sham. It does not allow flexibility for students who have jobs, or accidentally take the wrong course, or change their intended major.

Following the national trend, Governor Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island recently proposed an education reform plan called “Rhode Island’s Promise,” which provides two years of free college within the three public universities in the state. In her State of the State address, she announced, “Our promise needs to change if the people of Rhode Island are going to have a real shot in the economy of the future. Because the hardest part of college shouldn’t be paying for it. Giving Rhode Islanders access to a college education for half of what it would normally cost, and thereby creating the opportunity for them to advance economically is fantastic. The beauty of her plan is its simplicity: The program merely requires potential applicants to apply through FAFSA and ensure that they are from Rhode Island. Students need not provide their high school GPA or family income. Raimondo’s administration has attempted to eliminate obstacles that keep families from pushing their children forward.

Under “Rhode Island’s Promise,” students at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI), would receive payments for the first two years of their college degrees unconditionally. By contrast, at University of Rhode Island (URI) and Rhode Island College (RIC) students would have to maintain a 2.0 GPA and show that they are on track to graduate on time during their first two years. If they demonstrate this, the state picks up the tab for the final two years of their degree. The plan does not include the costs of room and board. The program is structured this way to minimize costs upfront until the program is fully phased in over four years to plan for the expected annual cost of $30 million. As Governor Raimondo stated, “we have the money,” so it makes sense to do this.

It is worthwhile to note that plenty of people claim that having an overabundant supply of college-educated workers may not be the best plan for the United States. After all, pursuing higher education is not without its mounting risks. The 40% of college students who do graduate take on huge financial burdens, and nearly two-thirds of students take longer than the conventional four-year term to graduate, which means more years spent without the dividends that a degree confers. Then, too, the United States faces a massive student debt crisis; it is not hard to see why people search for other options.

Teachers, families, and those in positions of authority tell American children that a college education provides the surest ticket to the middle class. However, much of that claim depends on the degree chosen, rather than solely finishing college. For example, engineering degrees in most circumstances will leave you better off financially than most degrees in the arts or humanities. Too many degrees today do not give a return on investment and lead kids into substantial amounts of debt and a tough job market following their graduation. Making college cheaper and more accessible is one way to increase students’ return on investment when they choose to invest in themselves.

Creating this program is logical and the smart move for Rhode Island. By offering two free years of schooling, the state has substantially cut the price of a college education for bachelor’s degrees. The new program provides students an incentive to pursue higher education, it affords them a greater return on investment, and it gives access to more jobs compared to just having a high school diploma. It will also be a significant factor in helping Rhode Islanders control their student debt — a much-needed relief given that this past year, Rhode Island had the second-highest average student loan debt of any state.

Making college cheaper and more accessible is one way to increase students’ return on investment when they choose to invest in themselves.

This move not only benefits the state by creating a larger number of educated local citizens, but it also drives more students to choose Rhode Island schools. It may also draw in businesses considering possible transitions to Rhode Island in the future, one of the Governor’s primary policy objectives. The governor insists that by educating the state’s students, Rhode Island’s workforce will be better suited for the future. 

Governor Raimondo led a disciplined campaign to sell her education platform and capture bipartisanship support. She laid the foundation for this proposal by implementing programs like CS4RI (Computer Science for Rhode Island), which requires students, from kindergarten to senior year of high school, to take computer science classes. She has also instituted various workforce partnership programs like Real Jobs For Rhode Island at state colleges. These foundational programs will not only be beneficial to students, but they may also funnel young children into computer science degrees, which are extremely competitive in today’s job market.

RIDE surveys, which study high school seniors throughout the state every year, show that 90% of seniors want to go to college while only 65% ever do. However, the only barriers are not just college accessibility and cost; students have to make sure that they stay on track to complete their degrees on time. The governor’s current proposal takes all of these issues into account. As long as students maintain a 2.0 GPA and show that they’ve adhered to their studies, they will have a significant financial burden lifted from their shoulders. This fiscal relief allows them to focus on their lives after college instead of worrying about how they are going to pay off student loans, thus fulfilling the promise to eliminate cost as a factor to going to college. A well-educated, less indebted workforce will confer real benefits to the state of Rhode Island as well.

It is important to note that not everyone must go to college to have a successful future. There are plenty of stories of individuals who do well without it, but people should have the opportunity to choose whether or not they want to pursue college regardless of financial barriers. This opportunity is what Governor Raimondo and those who helped bring this plan to fruition gave to the people of Rhode Island — a chance.

 

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Over the last few years, the gambling industry in the Northeast has been gradually expanding into new states, creating fierce competition for local gamblers. In Rhode Island, the gambling industry depends on the patronage of out-of-staters. Approximately 52% and 44% of the patrons at Twin River and Newport Grand respectively are residents of Massachusetts, which renders both casinos extremely vulnerable to new competition across the border. The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe has already broken ground on the First Lite casino in Taunton, Massachusetts — just 45 minutes away from the Newport Grand casino in Rhode Island. However, the Rhode Island-based Twin River Management group proposes to stay competitive in the growing market by constructing a new hotel-casino in Tiverton, Rhode Island, only 400 feet from the Massachusetts border.

Before they can move forward with the project, state and local residents will have to approve the proposal in a referendum on the November ballot. Many residents in Rhode Island have persistently voiced their concerns about potential negative impacts of a casino in their local communities, including crime, addiction, and general moral corruption. But the economic benefits of the proposed Tiverton casino outweigh the potential drawbacks: the new project will give Rhode Island a competitive edge against the expansion of the industry within Massachusetts, create new local jobs, and strengthen the state and local economies.

Rhode Island benefits when gambling dollars stay within state lines. A recent study by the Spectrum Gaming group, which took into account both the closure of the Newport Grand and the construction of a new casino in Taunton, found that the state of Rhode Island could gain up to $30.2 million in tax revenue by 2019 if the Tiverton casino opens. In recent history, Rhode Island gambling has already contributed a substantial amount of taxes to the state: The RI Lottery (which includes Video Lottery Terminals, table games and traditional lottery tickets) constitutes about 10% of the revenue for Rhode Island’s General Fund, which is used to finance state expenditures for transportation, natural resource management, and education, among other projects — all activities that don’t reek of moral corruption. The tax revenue from the Tiverton casino project would likely be used to cover the payroll of state and local government employees, which would create more jobs and free up existing funds for other projects.

In addition to bringing in more state tax revenue, the new casino in Tiverton could bring a net increase of 791 new jobs for both the construction and operation of the casino. Unlike the Newport Grand slots parlor, which the Tiverton casino would replace, the new casino will have 25-35 table games, a full-service restaurant, entertainment, and a hotel — amenities that create more permanent jobs. The casino’s scope and proximity to the Massachusetts border, as compared to the Newport Grand, would provide nearby Massachusetts and Rhode Island residents an incentive to gamble in Rhode Island instead of traveling to the similarly-sized facility planned for Taunton.

Even though few would make the argument that casinos are an absolute good for society, this referendum should be about the specific effects of the Tiverton casino, not the desirability of casinos as a whole.

Despite the apparent economic benefits of the project, many Rhode Island residents hold strong convictions about the idea of opening a casino in their community. The “Save Tiverton” movement began as a grassroots opposition group fighting against the proposed casino, but the movement has largely fallen apart after a reporter from the Providence Journal inquired about the movement’s anonymous backers — who refused to disclose their identities or affiliations — causing the religious leaders at the forefront of “Save Tiverton” to break ties with the organization. The “Save Tiverton” movement continues to share articles and post status updates on its Facebook page, and other groups post flyers and hold informational meetings. Although it seems unlikely that the movement will provide significant traction against Twin River’s nearly $500,000 campaign to promote the casino, the group, at the bare minimum, provides a platform to community members who have serious fears about the new casino and represents a very real reluctance to approve construction.

The community is deeply concerned that a new casino will lead to gambling addiction among the local residents, and this fear is justified. Problematic or pathological gamblers are more likely to face a number of negative consequences such as losing jobs, filing for bankruptcy, or committing crimes in order to pay debts and continue gambling. And, unsurprisingly, easily-accessible casinos only exacerbate gambling problems: different studies show that anywhere from 35-52% of the revenue at an average casino comes from problem gamblers. But even though gambling addiction remains a real problem, it is unclear that the addition of a casino will make a measurable impact on addiction in Tiverton. With the new casino in Taunton already under construction just 24 miles away, the Newport Grand 13 miles away, and various other casinos in Rhode Island and Connecticut within an hour’s drive, residents of Rhode Island and Massachusetts already have ample opportunity to gamble — all the Tiverton project changes is precisely where they will do it.

Despite the fact that the new casino is not likely to increase the risk of gambling addiction, both the state of Rhode Island and the Twin River group could do more to provide resources for problem gamblers. Currently, the legislature allocates about $50,000 per year to the Rhode Island Hospital for the treatment of problem gambling, while the RI Lottery provides funds to support a hotline; overall, the per capita allocation of public funds for problem gambling is well below the national average. The state legislature should consider creating a distinct service fund for problem gambling to spread awareness and fund community support groups.

It’s also useful to note that many of the jobs the new large-scale casino would create would benefit working class people, the same group that tends to be most harmed by the presence of a casino. The economic impact study for the Tiverton project concluded that the casino would offer economic opportunity for Tiverton’s poorest residents by providing entry-level and service jobs with an expected annual salary of $42,000. Although there’s no guarantee that all of the new jobs created in Tiverton will go to Tiverton residents, Twin River has a history of hiring locally, and any measure of local hiring would seriously impact the small population of poor and unemployed Tiverton residents.

One of the most widespread concerns about the construction of a new casino is that the facility will increase the crime rate in the area. However, the evidence on the link between casinos and crime is mixed, and most of the research on the subject was done more than a decade ago. A notable study by Grinols studying more than 170 counties with casinos from 1977-1996 found a significant link between the presence of casinos and a higher crime rate; however, this research may not ring true today. A study by the Associated Press in 2012 found that crime has fallen in the towns surrounding the Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.

In response to the community’s concerns, the Twin River management group has made it a point to emphasize the benefits of the casino to local residents. As a part of their campaign under the name Citizens to Create Jobs and Protect Revenue Inc., contractors, handymen, and electricians employed by Twin River companies praise the group and their practice of hiring local labor. The group also hosted more than 30 neighborhood meetings and three public workshops in order to hear input from the community about everything from environmental impact to traffic patterns. Tiverton residents were even allowed to vote on the casino’s architecture at a town council meeting, and they ultimately approved a design modeled after Tiverton’s local library, a point of pride in the community.

In November, Rhode Island voters will ultimately have to weigh the economic advantages of the Tiverton casino against its perceived social drawbacks. The disadvantages of living near casinos are real and should be considered closely. Even though few would make the argument that casinos are an absolute good for society, this referendum should be about the specific effects of the Tiverton casino, not the desirability of casinos as a whole. Considering the economic advantages of the casino, including job creation, tax revenue for the state, and a better chance at competing against the growing gambling industry in Massachusetts, the Tiverton casino is a safe bet for the state. Contrary to what the “Save Tiverton” group might say, approving the casino project would actually save Tiverton and the state of Rhode Island from losing out on an important economic opportunity.

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A cluster of third-graders, clad in khakis and blue polos, sit for lunch facing a world map marked with notecards on dozens of countries, telling the stories of the students’ families. These are the youth of Achievement First, one of Rhode Island’s four mayoral academies and a member of a unique network of charter schools overseen by the nonprofit Rhode Island Mayoral Academies (RIMA). Headed by school boards of mayors from neighboring cities and staffed by nonunionized teachers, mayoral academies are the mavericks of the Providence public school system. They are afforded the logistical autonomy and direct political accountability that other public schools are not. And perhaps even more strikingly, they’re working. Though across the country charter school networks spark controversy and show mixed results, RIMA’s commitment to diversity in the student body and dedicated support from local politicians have made the schools a nearly unimpeachable success.

Rhode Island debuted the mayoral academy (MA) model in 2009 with the opening of Blackstone Valley Prep (BVP), after the former mayor of Cumberland, Dan McKee, commissioned a study proving the creation of a different charter school network would be beneficial for the state. At the time, Rhode Island’s schools were publically struggling: In 2010, just about half of Providence public schools failed to make adequate yearly progress in accordance with national standards from the No Child Left Behind Act. The Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) needed a solution, particularly one that would service the unique population of RI’s urban centers, which house a high proportion of English-language-learning (ELL) students. MAs offered potential for fundamental change: smaller public schools administered by a nonprofit to educate children from all over the state.

With entry conducted on a lottery basis, MAs maintain some of the benefits of public schools by filling classrooms with racially and socioeconomically diverse students. Their lottery systems are open to at least one urban and multiple suburban communities in RI. BVP — between its three elementary, two middle, and one high school — now serves about 1,400 students; 48 percent are Hispanic, 37 percent are White, and 11 percent are Black. Its students hail from across the state, with students from Pawtucket, Central Falls, Cumberland, and Lincoln. By comparison, RI’s population is roughly 81 percent White, 12 percent Hispanic, and 6 percent Black according to the 2010 census. In this way, MAs attempt to simultaneously combat housing segregation and offer high-quality school choice options to families who were unable to exercise the most common, and frequently inaccessible, form of school choice: moving to a better district.

Though charter schools are certainly not new to RI, MAs differ from their traditional public school and charter counterparts due to their RIDE exemption from state tenure, pension, and prevailing wage laws. These exemptions — which RIMA specifically lobbied for — translate into flexible compensation for exceptional teachers who are currently able to pay into 401ks and receive peer-to-peer assistance from other staff members. Exemption from state tenure laws also enables MAs to conduct, if necessary, promotion and firing exercises with more ease than traditional public schools.

The academic results speak for themselves, as MAs tout remarkably low attrition rates and high performance while serving traditionally underserved populations.

In an interview with Brown Political Review, RIMA’s CEO Elsa Duré emphasized the rationale behind breaking down these restrictions: “Schools needed to have the flexibilities around how they make decisions around teachers so they can better serve their kids…If we have individuals who may be with us 2, 5, 15, 30 years, we want to make sure we have a retirement package that rewards them.” RIMA has also used its contractual flexibility to extend school days, lengthen the school year, and reduce student-teacher ratios. At BVP, for example, teachers complete two full weeks of professional development training in August. And each Wednesday is an early-release day for students, so that teachers are afforded two and a half hours of school-based learning and training to analyze student performance and plan their lessons.

The academic results speak for themselves; MAs tout remarkably low attrition rates and high performance while serving traditionally underserved populations. Achievement First has the vast majority of its students reading at or above grade level, though 26 percent are ELL students and 8 percent are students with developmental challenges. According to parent testimony, Achievement First incorporates these students into the standard classrooms and pulls them out for work sessions with specialists according to need. By omitting the separate, tracked system for students with higher needs and monitoring process among students at their respective grade level, the MAs craft an environment that encompasses as many levels of learning as possible.

Achievement First’s success is reminiscent of BVP, where 93 percent of Hispanic or Latino 8th grade students are proficient in math, 57 points higher than the state average. And according to the disaggregated Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers’ (PARCC) results from 2015, 55 percent of high school students at BVP Mayoral Academy met or exceeded ELA/Literacy standards. By comparison, 24 percent of students at Paul Cuffee Charter High School met or exceeded these same standards, and 17 percent of the Providence Public School District performed at this level. Further, the PARCC is considered reliable enough that city officials aim to make proficiency a requirement to graduate from high school starting with the class of 2017. In other words, students at MAs are outperforming their local peers across the board.

Opposition to MAs, however, isn’t about test scores; it’s about funding and the perceived privatization of public education. In Woonsocket last year, for example, the city council endeavored to rescind their mayor’s support for the newest MA, RISE Prep. Local families cited concerns that money would be siphoned from the area’s traditional public school. Those families aren’t being unreasonable; in 2010, the newly-passed Fair Funding Formula effectively enabled per-pupil funding (approximately $14,415 per student per school year in RI) to “follow the student” to their public school of choice. In practice, this means the money expected to enter, say, an ailing school like Mary Fogarty Elementary instead follows a student accepting a lottery placement to Achievement First in Federal Hill.

Since there could never be a mass exodus of pupils to MAs — RIDE caps the number of students in mayoral academies to a small percentage of the state’s student population — the MAs cannot be held responsible for major budgetary concerns of Rhode Island’s public schools. Nevertheless, MA opponents may soon see their funding concerns remedied. Introduced this February, Governor Gina Raimondo’s budget plan proposes that for each student leaving for a charter school, the district is to keep $350 of the per-pupil expenditure — and in areas where charter students make up more than 5 percent of pupils, like Providence, an additional $300 would remain in-district, amounting to a total of about $2.6 million. More broadly, the plan includes the expansion of state-funded pre-K, SAT tutoring, professional development, and facility repairs within traditional public schools. In this sense, what little cost the MAs do exact from the state budget will be accounted for. And even if there is some tradeoff, the costs surely seem to pale in comparison to the academic and personal achievements that students at MAs have demonstrated.

Through their unique programs, MAs are also contributing to RI’s educational ecosystem. RIMA and RI’s public schools are already engaging with one another and building two-way avenues for feedback; in recent years, partnerships were established with the Central Falls and Pawtucket districts. These constructive dialogues are rare because of the politics and stigma around perceived competition. But RIMA has shown a willingness to engage with its traditional counterparts. “The truth is that there are traditional district schools that are doing amazing things we can learn from,” Duré said. As the MA model becomes more integrated into RI’s culture, and thus affects a broader base of students, it will hopefully change charters’ negative reputation, encouraging collaboration between MAs, in-district and independent charters, and traditional public schools.

All told, RIMA’s network has pioneered a well-crafted two-way street for politicians and educators: Mayors have a tangible stake in their cities’ students, and educators have more direct pathways to communicate with RIDE. Particularly in this post-NCLB era, other states with many nearby urban and suburban communities may find that this new model could afford families another viable form of school choice. The flexibility to extend school days, provide teachers with internal support systems and just retirement packages, or celebrate multiculturalism with bilingual posters in the stairwells of public schools enables mayoral academies to get back to the basics: educating youth.

Images of protestors standing at a picket line demanding the protection of workers’ rights characterized the American labor movement. Today, guaranteed minimum wage, health care benefits, and 40-hour work weeks have all become fundamental expectations for employees around the nation. But despite profound policy advancements over the past two centuries, many workers are still grappling with the same labor battle. In Rhode Island particularly, employees are vigorously fighting rampant wage theft, coercion, intimidation, and legal threats. Unfortunately for many workers in the state — as well as across the nation — the quotidian work day is complicated by exploitation from employers coupled with structural hindrances that prevent workers from seeking justice.

Consider one central principle: getting a due wage. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that lost wages constitute $50 billion nationwide per year. Rhode Island, along with other states, suffers from a wage theft epidemic; the state has seen numerous cases where employees do not receive contractually agreed upon salary or benefits. The Providence Journal has often highlighted common examples of exploitation, like “minimum-wage and overtime law violations, altered work records, misclassification of employees as independent contractors, stolen tips, or failure to pay at all.” The interstate work of many Rhode Island jobs complicates the state’s wage theft problem; companies can hide behind jurisdictional issues to avoid paying their employees. Moreover, employers can easily and maliciously spin claims of stolen wages in court by accusing workers of scheming for more money. More often than not, wage theft in the Ocean State indicates systematic maltreatment that disproportionately affects low-wage and minority workers.

José Henao, an immigrant painter from Colombia now living in Rhode Island, travels throughout the northeast, working 12-hour days with limited 15-minute breaks for LazCo Contracting Inc. After looking into his payment history, he realized that he wasn’t being paid for his overtime hours. LazCo frequently misled him regarding the rules of overtime, both by invoking contradictory company policies and even denying that he had actually worked overtime. By casting him as a worker seeking retribution who had conjured up false claims of wage theft, LazCo was able to evade Henao’s claims. Confronted with these challenges, Henao, one of a workforce entirely composed of immigrants, pursued his claims to overtime pay. Speaking to the Providence Journal, Henao’s boss openly admitted to his company’s regular exploitation of immigrants.

Even amid pervasive working class struggles, Rhode Island still hasn’t clocked in.

Henao’s story isn’t uncommon in Rhode Island — immigrants are often the targets of company theft. An attendee to a pro-worker meeting in Providence, recalling her experience as an immigrant restaurant worker, noted: “[the manager] looks for people who have come directly from Guatemala. He doesn’t pick people who are aware. He doesn’t select people who say no.” In this observation, she’s identified a disturbing occurrence in immigrant employment: Employers exploit the unfamiliarity of immigrant workers to minimize their wages and suppress their rights.

Workers’ inability to organize compounds this blatant manipulation. As the grassroots organization Jobs With Justice explains, immigrants are often hired through “guest-work visas,” whereby they’re not in a position to demand higher pay, benefits, entitlements, and other necessities. Court and civil suits are rarely an option for obvious reasons: Legal fees are high, representation is often inadequate, and low-wage employees simply can’t afford to miss work. Most, if not all undocumented workers can’t even organize to fight abuse since, as Jobs With Justice explains, employers discourage organizing efforts with threats of deportation.

But wage suppression goes beyond immigrant workers. In the restaurant industry, waiters and waitresses face a unique set of challenges. Most commonly, restaurant employees work on a “tipped minimum wage” of $3.39 per hour — 35 percent of Rhode Island’s $9.60 per hour minimum. Ideally, with customer tips, the worker should be able to make at least $9.60 per hour. Otherwise, the employer is supposed to compensate with increased wages. Unsurprisingly, the law often falls far too short of this goal, since enforcement is so difficult. Employees would need to track hourly tips in reference to hourly wages, which constantly fluctuate. It isn’t uncommon for employers to pocket employees’ tips and use them to pay other workers. Even if tipped workers receive the full tip, their living depends on the unreliable goodwill of customers. Whatever the intention of the law, in practice, waiters and waitresses subsist on a wage far less than the state minimum wage, despite tips. In the end, tipped workers are twice as likely as other workers to live in poverty, including other minimum wage jobs. Moreover, when over 70 percent of female workers in Rhode Island are subject to a tipped minimum wage, and 35 percent of tipped women are single mothers, this becomes, as grassroots organizer Mike Araujo calls it “a legalized form of discrimination.”

Though certain groups are hit especially hard by exploitation, workers across the board face monumental challenges to organizing and fighting for their rights. Employees who fight back put their jobs, income, and savings on the line. Furthermore, many businesses and employers aggressively discourage and block organization; the Economic Policy Institute reports that 34 percent of employers fire workers during National Labor Relations Board elections. Three in four employers facing unionization have hired anti-union consultants for advice. Challenged by insurmountable obstacles preventing organization and advocacy, it’s no wonder that workers have trouble finding food, shelter, and even childcare.

For Providence citizen and single mother Moira Walsh, this is just the case. After working at a diner for a number of years, she recalls being invited to a bar by a colleague who connected her with pro-worker advocates. The next day, she attended an event she thought was a pro-waitress rally — as it turns out, it was actually a State Senate hearing. After giving her testimony, Walsh recalls, “I went out to the hallway and cried hysterically — I thought they were going to fire me. [My boss] has [since] tried to fire me about seven or eight times.” Though she has fought back with the help of many Rhode Island advocacy organizations, she notes that she and many other workers in similar positions have had to rely upon workers’ rights groups that specialize in various interest areas. Constantly switching between nonprofit organizations just to secure simple legal benefits is an untenable solution.

With the prevalence of unethical employer behavior and the obstacles that many employees face, a third party is perhaps necessary for any hope of progress — specifically, the government. Northwestern University Professor Daniel Galvin’s study of state labor laws succinctly concludes that state action is both necessary and effective for labor reform: Stronger penalties for wage theft and rights violations empirically lead to a sizable drop in such crimes. But even amidst pervasive working class struggles, Rhode Island still hasn’t clocked in. Encumbered by lobbyists, economic concerns, and general disinterest, the government — the labor movement’s “last line of defense” — is falling short.

Most often, the state’s role in this battle stems from a disturbing inability to understand the perspectives of low-wage workers. In one example, a pro-labor lobbying group brought in a collection of Rhode Island workers to testify about their difficulties to their state representatives. One frustrated worker cornered her representative and began to yell, “You don’t understand what it’s like to be poor!” Walsh, who accompanied her to the state house, recounts that the representative informed the group leader that he would “actively fight against this pro-worker legislation.” Several other representatives collectively deemed it inappropriate for a constituent to challenge them in that way.

Some legislators are willing to listen, to meet their constituents in the middle or acknowledge their struggles. In the lived experiences of many Rhode Island workers, this happens rarely — consequently, groups and individuals themselves are trying to influence Rhode Island politics. Around the nation, organizations like Jobs for Justice and the Working Families Party are also taking on new political roles, while unions are starting to shift their efforts away from collective bargaining with employers toward negotiating policy with representatives. Difficult times call for strict government accountability, and workers should push for reforms when their state has the ability to stop employers from trampling on their rights. Perhaps Rhode Island, with its hyper-localized politics, can serve as a model of advocacy and success.

Decades of social progress have given workers the fundamental rights that exist today. But when companies and employers trample on their workers’ rights and dues, it takes more than a collection of nonprofit organizations and worker demonstrations to engender reforms. Until the state steps up to the plate, workers will only continue to pay.

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Art by Grace Zhang

Much to the dismay of environmentalists, progressives, and worried citizens, the national political climate remains frozen on climate change while ice caps melt. Under the shadow of the global inability to address the issue, alarmed and alert Americans are struggling to restore and sustain their environment. But if the effects of climate change seem distant, Rhode Island’s experience is proof of the contrary. The country’s smallest state could become an important case study in the United States’ efforts to fight climate change.

Rhode Island has already suffered the effects of a regional climate shift. A 2012 report to then-Governor Lincoln Chafee reveals that, as a result of new extreme weather patterns, “communities in Rhode Island have been hit by at least six major storms…which overwhelmed sewer and storm water systems, caused power outages, damaged roads and bridges, inundated neighborhoods, and caused extensive property damage.” These warning signs are particularly ominous for activists and citizens of the aptly named Ocean State. “[Rhode Island] has only 39 towns, 21 of which are coastal communities,” observes Elizabeth Stone, a coordinator at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. “So when you start talking about things like sea level rise…and increasing intensity of storms, there’s such a vulnerability for so many of our cities and towns.”

Faced with the imminent effects of climate change, Rhode Islanders have moved to research and support genuine solutions. According to a report by the Northeast Climate Impacts Assessment, Rhode Island can slash its projected flood rates in half, drastically slow down temperature rise, and take huge steps to combat storm risk through mitigation and adaptation to climate change. The report suggests that state-level legislative action to proactively control emissions could accomplish these aims, and accordingly, activists have catalyzed around such a plan. Drafters of the Energize RI Act, a proposed piece of climate legislation, demanded that the state put a price on fossil fuels entering the state, thereby generating new revenue for infrastructure and creating jobs. Though the bill failed to get through the legislature, the grassroots effort behind the Energize RI Act demonstrates an eagerness among many Rhode Islanders to lead the transition to efficient and clean technologies.

With viable solutions on the table, it may seem a bit odd that the state isn’t taking action. But Rhode Island, a heavily Democratic state, also exemplifies how local economic concerns continue to cloud perspectives on climate change. Brown University Professor J. Timmons Roberts, an environmentalist who helped draft the Energize RI Act, argues that although the state’s economy is beginning to rev its engines, “there’s great cautiousness about anything that might scare away companies or employers.” As such, many politicians and citizens often focus on direct costs to business, rather than acknowledging the more pervasive, long-term threat that climate change poses to the economic sector. Throw in the usual suspects — ignorance on climate change, fossil fuel interests, and fears of an energy shortage — and it’s no surprise that environmentalism remains on the sidelines. The obstacles toward progress that Rhode Island faces resemble those on the national scale, but the Ocean State has a critical advantage available to small states and localities: a strong sense of community.

Those who have dipped their toes in Rhode Island politics understand the state’s intimacy. Unlike on the national level, individuals and local communities have voices that count and carry influence. The Resilient Rhode Island Act, led by a coalition of local environmental groups and leaders, represents the deep potential for community engagement. The coalition behind the legislation succeeded by grounding its efforts in Rhode Island’s specific experience with climate change, maintaining that the legislative and cultural battle “will be won in individual communities,” not on a national or global scale. The grassroots run deeper still. While bipartisan dysfunction and quarrels over scientific validity condemn climate change to inaction in Congress, people like Pieter Roos of the Newport Restoration Foundation (NRF) are circumventing national debates on climate change to focus on tangible efforts to protect local communities. For Roos, the emphasis is on smaller-scale measures and a pragmatic approach. The NRF’s upcoming conference sets aside the abstracts of climate change and doubles down on “what can be done to protect historic buildings, landscapes, and neighborhoods from the increasing threat of inundation.” These personal and communal approaches to climate change capture what the nation desperately needs and what Rhode Island is well-suited to promote.

Local action in Rhode Island will have impacts far beyond the Ocean State’s borders. As a tight-knit, innovative, and vulnerable state, Rhode Island is in a critical position to take leadership, with both national and international consequences. The rest of the world is keeping a watchful eye on the United States, and in the face of political deadlock, state solutions represent the key to long-awaited action. “The hope is that we can blaze a trail, that we can gain the benefits of much greater efficiency,” said Roberts. As local communities recognize that pragmatic solutions to climate change exist, they embody the idea that change begins at home.

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Art by: Ala Lee

Common Core State Standards were designed to create common education standards — not common criticisms. But across the country, an unlikely coalition of students, parents, teachers, and politicians has united against one particularly controversial aspect of the new standards: the development and implementation of Common Core-aligned state tests. When Common Core Standards were first introduced in 2010, a wide majority of states pledged to oversee the development and administration of either the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) or the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) as Common Core-aligned assessments. State participation in these assessment consortia, however, has slowly dwindled as opposition to the assessments has grown. This past school year only 29 states and Washington, DC administered either the PARCC or SBAC, some with more success than others.

In the midst of ongoing policy disputes across multiple state education systems, it is easy to overlook the few states, including Rhode Island, that have avoided major opposition to Common Core-aligned assessments. Implementation has not gone completely smoothly in the state — last year there was a limited opt-out movement —  but compared to other states, where Common Core assessments are being ripped up, the transition to the new tests has been pleasantly uneventful. Rhode Island’s atypical acceptance of the Common Core-aligned assessments provides key insights into the factors that determine whether Common Core implementation succeeds. Comparing the steps that are leading to success in Rhode Island and failure elsewhere can provide a helpful blueprint for implementing these new Common Core assessments nationwide.

Perhaps no state exemplifies the testing controversy quite as well as Louisiana. The state willingly adopted the PARCC exam in 2010, and, in turn, the Louisiana Department of Education took comprehensive steps to plan for the rollout of the new test. This included working with districts on drafting a 10-year accountability transition plan and drawing up cost-effective ways to update technology needs. At the start, the PARCC exam seemed poised to succeed. The trouble began when Republican Governor Bobby Jindal initiated what would become a long and embittered political fight over Common Core assessment. On June 18, 2014, his office issued an executive order suspending the state’s contract with the PARCC, claiming that the consortium’s contract with the State Department of Education had been signed illegally. The Louisiana education superintendent defied the order and promised that the implementation of the PARCC exam would continue as originally planned. Four days later, a group of Common Core proponents including parents, teachers, and charter schools filed suit against the governor, claiming his efforts to suspend the PARCC had no legal merit and were intended to cause chaos and delay in the state education system.

If chaos is indeed what Governor Jindal intended, he succeeded. In the wake of this political fighting, the school system was left with conflicting accounts of the PARCC’s status, prohibiting teachers from properly preparing their students for the exam. The fight continued until September, when a federal judge ruled against Jindal’s claims of federal overreach. The shaky implementation of the test, however, has effectively killed the PARCC in Louisiana, and the state plans on administering a different assessment later this year.

Louisiana is not alone in its rejection of Common Core-aligned assessments. Other states have also gotten creative in their attempts to kill the PARCC and the SBAC. This past spring, Ohio’s Republican Governor John Kasich effectively removed his state from PARCC participation by writing its funding out of the state budget. In Arkansas, the State Board of Education — whose members were appointed by Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson, another Common Core opponent — recently voted to replace the PARCC exam in a 4 to 2 vote. New York, which was a tentative PARCC member, entered a five-year contract with a different testing company, essentially ending any potential adoption of the PARCC.

Even within the states that plan to continue with the SBAC or the PARCC, policymakers have avoided statewide adoption of the tests. Massachusetts let districts choose to administer either the PARCC or the old state-level assessment. In neighboring Connecticut, Democratic Governor Dan Malloy recently announced that high school juniors would no longer have to take the SBAC, following a legislative effort earlier in the spring to scrap the test entirely.

In contrast, Rhode Island remains notably committed to its transition to the PARCC. Schools across the state administered the PARCC exam in grades 3 through 11 for the first time this past spring, and the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) plans on moving forward with the test for the 2015-2016 school year. Rhode Island’s success rates in PARCC implementation provide an intriguing contrast to states whose PARCC plans have been derailed.

From the beginning, state education officials in Rhode Island understood the necessity of a smooth transition to the new test. Their strategy focused on two efforts to ease stakeholder concerns: providing support and guidance for test administration and launching intensive communications campaigns. Together, these two aspects of preparation enabled the PARCC in Rhode Island to avoid the excessive criticism and politicization that hobbled the assessment in other states.

Student access to technology is essential for PARCC or SBAC administration because the new exams are largely computer-based. Consequently, Rhode Island state policymakers made technological infrastructure an educational priority. To begin, the state approved a $20 million technology bond to help fund new educational technologies across the state. RIDE officials also provided support to districts by drafting intricate guidance documents advising current teachers on how to incorporate the assessment standards. In addition, RIDE targeted future teachers by integrating the Common Core into teacher training programs. When the PARCC was finally introduced, educators in Rhode Island had already been teaching tech-driven test content for years, easing any concerns about district readiness.

In addition to the technological upgrades, Rhode Island officials also focused on cultivating a positive public perception of the test. The Common Core has proven itself particularly susceptible to being derailed by political pressure. If state legislators receive enough calls from concerned constituents, they may act to limit or remove such assessments, as they did in Ohio and Connecticut. In Rhode Island, however, local school districts and RIDE drafted a number of materials — including informational videos, packets and one-pagers, webinars, and interviews with local media —  to reassure concerned parents and students. Officials also generated support for the test among other key stakeholders by including a moratorium on using the test as a graduation requirement and for calculating teacher evaluation ratings. Perhaps as a result of these efforts, articles in local news sources such as the Providence Journal and Channel 12 WPRI reflected positive views of the PARCC assessments, and local social media opposition to the tests was limited and relatively disorganized. In the first testing session this spring, only about 3,000 Rhode Island students opted out of the PARCC, a small fraction compared to the roughly 80,000 Rhode Island students who took the exam. Opt-out efforts were isolated to several districts, with most districts reporting nearly full attendance. Together, these indicators suggest that public perception of the test was generally positive or at least neutral.

Few other states took steps to mitigate a potentially negative public response. In New York, for example, efforts to prepare the public for the new tests were relatively limited. It came as no surprise, then, when parents and students reacted negatively to the much more difficult, complex exam. As Democratic Governor Andrew M. Cuomo recently admitted, “The implementation of the Common Core just did not work.” In New Jersey, a strong anti-testing lobby formed, launching a cycle of attack ads against the PARCC assessment. Florida’s resistance focused on controversial policies connected to the outcomes, including teacher evaluation measures and student graduation requirements. Such policies have attracted many critics, polarizing the issue and driving calls for repeal. Rhode Island avoided most opposition, in part, by assuaging the fears of these potential critics.

Political opposition to Common Core-aligned assessments is perhaps a symptom of a larger implementation failure. Hoping to capitalize on growing opposition, Governors Jindal, Hutchinson, Kasich, and Cuomo have embraced efforts to roll back Common Core-aligned assessments. But the resistance originated in the first place because, unlike Rhode Island, these states were unable to prepare their schools for test administration, ease stakeholder concerns, and sell the tests to the public — not because there is something fundamentally flawed with the Common Core standards themselves.

The key points from this state-by-state analysis of testing policy reveal a great deal about education policy: principally, that education in the United States is a fragmented patchwork of 50 different, uncoordinated state systems. Successful implementation of potentially controversial policies requires comprehensive, patient efforts to prepare and engage many different stakeholders. For the sake of the millions of public school students across the country, it is essential that professionals in education understand the potential roadblocks to education reform so that they may better navigate the implementation of future reforms. Perhaps it is for the best that states are holding off on the tests, because evidently policymakers — not students — still have some lessons to learn.   

Art by Julie Benbassat

Almost a full year into her first term, Governor Gina Raimondo has already taken ambitious steps toward her campaign promise to revamp the Rhode Island economy. This past June, she signed a number of financial incentives into the state budget, including a $25 million I-195 development fund, a $5 million small business assistance program, and another $5 million worth of support for a gap financing fund to assist with business development. Also included is $7.8 million towards a comprehensive campaign to boost Rhode Island’s tourism industry, one of the state’s largest industries. Together, the economic growth incentives total $98.75 million, all to encourage real estate development, job growth, and business activity in Rhode Island. However, Raimondo’s push to jumpstart the state’s weak economic recovery is hardly new for Rhode Island politics; lawmakers have been trying to fuel the state’s economic engine for much of recent history without much tangible progress. In the context of these earlier efforts for economic reform in Rhode Island, it’s uncertain how much impact Raimondo’s plans – some of which are strikingly similar to past efforts – will actually have on the state’s economy. Given this uncertainty, it’s crucial that Raimondo implements measures of accountable and comprehensive program management and evaluation into her economic policy, so as not to repeat the same economic policy blunders that have hurt the state in the past.

The political emphasis on turning the state’s economy around is a product of Rhode Island’s chronic economic troubles. Since the 1980s, Rhode Island has consistently had a higher unemployment rate than the regional New England average, as tiny Rhode Island has struggled to compete with neighboring states to attract business growth. The 2008 financial crisis hit Rhode Island particularly hard, causing the state to lose roughly 30,000 private sector jobs, largely from the manufacturing industry. At one point, Rhode Island’s unemployment rate was the highest in the nation. The Ocean State was also one of the last states to recover from the recession, experiencing relatively slow job growth and per-person economic output.

As such, economic stimulus has been a cornerstone of Rhode Island policy for much of the past few decades. Going back to 1984, Rhode Island lawmakers developed a comprehensive economic plan – dubbed the Greenhouse Compact – allocating over $225 million to help boost economic development. More recently, initiatives such as the 2002 Historic Preservation Tax Credit, the 2005 Jobs Growth Act, and the 2010 Job Creation Guarantee Program provided various forms of tax relief to revitalize the economy and encourage job growth. Just before Raimondo took office, Governor Lincoln Chafee worked with the state legislature to pass a comprehensive tax reform that included lowering the corporate sales tax and repealing the state franchise tax, all in an effort to encourage business growth. The long history of economic development initiatives ultimately raises the question: If so much has already been done to revive the Rhode Island economy, why is it still in need of repair?

The unfortunate answer is that economic development has a shaky track record in Rhode Island, often failing to meet expectations. The Greenhouse Compact of 1984 is perhaps one of the best examples of Rhode Island’s failed economic development plans. Despite the fact that the plan was developed after consulting a range of Rhode Island stakeholders and an in-depth analysis of the state’s economy, voters overwhelmingly rejected the compact in a state-wide referendum. While factors such as poor public communications and structure contributed to the defeat, post-election polls indicate that it was actually distrust in the state government that ultimately killed the initiative.

But the Greenhouse Compact didn’t even have the chance to be enacted, whereas other plans that have gone through have had a limited effect. Take the former governor Donald Carcieri’s 2005 Jobs Growth Act, which reduced the income tax for high-paid employees at companies that created at least 100 Rhode Island jobs worth at least $100 million in payroll. This act was largely credited as the reason why the trading broker Fidelity Investments relocated a branch to Rhode Island, creating about 1,000 jobs. Missing from the plan, however, was any measure to track exactly what impact the policy had on job growth, making it difficult to determine its effect. And yet, unemployment in Rhode Island during Carcieri’s time as governor went from around 5 percent to about 11 percent. While most of the increase is probably attributable to the 2008 national recession, Rhode Island was extremely hard hit and slow to recover. Therefore, while Governor Carcieri’s policies may have had individual successes, they did not have any net measurable effect on economic growth, and if anything, completely failed to help Rhode Island mitigate losses in jobs and growth during the onset of the recession.

Also under Carcieri, the state legislature passed a new $125 million economic development initiative called the Job Creation Guarantee Program to attract high-tech and knowledge-based companies to Rhode Island. Of that funding, $75 million was loaned to the start-up video game company 38 Studios. On the surface, this tech-industry loan program seemed like another effort to bring new industry, new jobs, and additional tax revenue to the state. However, 38 Studios went bankrupt only two years later, costing Rhode Island taxpayers roughly $90 million total in principal and interest payments. What’s more, recent inquiry from the past few months has revealed that government officials at the time had known about the risk involved with funding such an unproven company, and yet inside interests where still able to appropriate millions under the premise of ‘economic revitalization’. Considering the complete failure of governmental management with 38 Studios, perhaps the Rhode Island voters of 1984 who voted down the Greenhouse Compact were right to distrust the state to responsibly manage economic development.

The long history of economic development initiatives ultimately raises the question: If so much has already been done to revive the Rhode Island economy, why is it still in need of repair?

When viewed in the historical context of Rhode Island’s past economic development efforts, Raimondo’s budget plans for economic development start to sound eerily familiar. For example, to supplement her understanding of Rhode Island’s economic condition, the governor has commissioned a study with the Brookings Institution to identify areas of potential growth and recommend consequent strategies. However, lawmakers have been commissioning studies of the state’s economy for a while now, from the 1984 Greenhouse Compact to the more recent 2013 Fourth Economy Economic Development Report. The Rhode Island economy is already extremely well studied, and yet, little has succeeded in turning it around so far, raising questions as to how much difference the Brookings Institution partnership will ultimately make. Additionally, Raimondo’s New Qualified Jobs Incentive Act, which aims to create jobs by offering business $2,500 in tax credits for every new job, is strikingly similar to the Jobs Growth Act of 2005; both initiatives encourage job growth by reducing the tax liability on employers. Raimondo’s real-estate development incentives are also similar: the $1 million Rebuild Rhode Island tax credit component of the plan, which aims to encourage real-estate development through a series of tax breaks for development projects, is similar to the former Rhode Island Historical Tax Credit that was terminated in 2008. Thus, the major policy toolkit in Governor Raimondo’s budget have, to some extent, been tried before.

To Raimondo’s credit, the package of growth initiatives in the state budget could indeed help to boost the Rhode Island economy, despite the similarities to previous initiatives. The logic behind them makes intuitive sense: In offering financial incentives to developers and businesses through tax credits, competitive loans, and governmental support, more businesses, and, therefore more jobs and tax dollars, will move to the state. The proposals for development projects – which include new university facilities, office and apartment complexes, and other attractions like a new ballpark – could similarly attract people and businesses to the state. And many of Raimondo’s policies reflect similar approaches to the previous economic development packages that were relatively successful, such as the Historical Preservation Investment Tax Credit, which Smart Growth Rhode Island estimates generated roughly $2.46 billion in economic activity, earning a return of $5.15 for every dollar spent by the state. While Raimondo’s corresponding Rebuild RI Tax Credit is broader in scope, it essentially has the same structure and potential for success.

Missing from the focus of the governor’s economic package and those of her predecessors, however, are any meaningful measures of program evaluation to track the progress and effectiveness of these policies. As part of the incentives package, lawmakers included transparency and reporting requirements to track how the government is spending this money. Additionally, the new tax incentives fall under the 2013 Tax Incentives Evaluation Act requiring the Office of Revenue to conduct an in-depth cost-benefit analysis to determine how successful such programs are. While this may seem like a solid standard of program evaluation, these measures actually are not as comprehensive as one might imagine. First, the reporting requirements only track which companies received tax credits and how many credits they received, not whether the credits were cost-effective or if they had any positive impact on economic growth. Secondly, the law only requires a cost-benefit analysis once in the first five years, and the tax incentives are set to sunset in 2018. This means that lawmakers will have to decide to renew the tax incentives before they have any concrete understanding of the incentive’s impact on the economy. If lawmakers decide to renew the incentives in 2018, a comprehensive program evaluation won’t even be completed until 2020. Keep in mind, 38 Studios went bankrupt in only two years, so if a similar debacle were to happen again, the five-year program analysis would be of no help. As such, there is no system in place to determine the extent to which to these policies will positively stimulate the economy, if at all, in the near future.

To avoid some of the same shortcomings that previous economic policies have had in Rhode Island, the governor should include a series of checks and balances within the programs that ensure proper management, such as intergovernmental oversight over funding decisions, more frequent program evaluation, and increased feedback measures from stakeholders. This would reduce the chance of complete investment failures such as 38 Studios while also hopefully mitigating the same public distrust that rejected the Greenhouse Compact. Part of the reason many of the same ideas have been tried and retried over the years is because the policies never yielded direct results but rather rough estimations or anecdotal evidence of success or failure. A more comprehensive system of management could therefore protect taxpayer investments by ensuring that the economic growth incentives are not abused and function as intended.

With Raimondo continuing into her second year as governor, she most certainly will continue to push more efforts to boost the economy. As her new policies start to take effect, however, Rhode Islanders should be aware of the similar efforts from the past that had shaky track records of success. For the sake of Rhode Island taxpayers, let’s hope that Raimondo learns from these failures by supplementing the policies with more accountable management practices and a better understanding of their impact.

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