School Choice Essay Contest Winners

In celebrating “Friedman Legacy Day 2013″, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity is pleased to announce the winners for the top two essayists in a private essay contest it conducted with the youth-run empowerment organization, People United For Change.

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Tiffany Rezendes Essay

Winning Essay: 2013 “School Choice” Essay Contest – Tiffany Rezendes

See the Media Release here …

(July, 2013) Tiffany Rezendes is twenty years old. Tiffany was born and raised in Providence and educated in the Providence public school system. Unlike many of her friends, who dropped out under-performing schools, Tiffany was accepted to and graduated from Classical High School.

Tiffany Rezendes poses with her IPad prize as winner of Friedman Legacy Day 2013 School Choice Essay Contest winner!

Tiffany Rezendes poses with her IPad prize as winner of Friedman Legacy Day 2013 School Choice Essay Contest winner!

She now studies liberal arts and psychology at CCRI. After college, she wants to do whatever will do the most to help people in her community. She is considering ministry because she believes that empowering people religiously will make the biggest, most positive impact on all other areas of people’s lives.

Her winning essay is below …


School choice

School choice was never really an issue of interest to me for two reasons. One reason was that I had no idea what school choice even meant. I was never taught that the possibility existed for students to choose the school they wanted to go to regardless of where they live or of their family’s economic status. I was always taught that when it came to school you either found a way to come up with the money to pay for the good schools (Moses Brown, LaSalle Academy), was smart enough to get into the charter schools and college prep schools or to just settle for the public school closest to your house. The second reason why school choice was never important to me was that I had the opportunity to attend Classical High school, so I didn’t have to worry about being sent to just any public school in my area, I was already at one of the best schools in Rhode Island. However, to my dismay this wasn’t the reality for many of my friends, who had no other choice but to choose one of the below average public schools.

It isn’t surprising that on the list of the top schools in Rhode Island not one Providence public school (Mt. Pleasant, Hope, Central) is listed (U.S.News & World Report LP.). The top school on the list is Classical high school, which you take a test to get into, and the only other school on the list from Providence is Times2 Academy, which is a charter school, which you have to be chosen from a lottery to get into. This leaves the “choice” for students to be really no choice at all. You either get into one of the “smart” schools, pay to go to the good schools, or settle for the many below average public schools. A choice would mean that all students regardless of geographical location, economic status, or level of intelligence would have the opportunity to attend an institution where they know they can receive top-notch instruction from teachers who truly care about their educational success.

Many of my friends and fellow junior high classmates were there with me on the day of the Classical test. And sadly I can say that many of them were not accepted and because there is no school choice in Rhode Island they were forced to choose one of the local public schools in their district. And to further this point it pains me to say that I found out that two of them that I knew of dropped out of high school because they lost interest and motivation. I’m going to focus on one of these people for this essay.

My best friend Jess attended three Providence public schools within just the time span of her freshman year of high school. She went to these schools because they were the only options presented to her. I can imagine how demoralizing it must have been for her to not be able to attend the school she wanted (Classical) and then have to settle for one of the low standard public schools which everyone knows have horrible ratings when it comes to test scores and graduation rates. I strongly believe that if Jess had the opportunity to choose one of the top schools like Moses Brown or LaSalle, she would have graduated and would have been in college now. Jess was willing to work hard if she was put in an environment that would challenge her, but I think she just gave up once she found out she wasn’t accepted into Classical because all her hopes of having a great education had to be lowered to settle for a below average school experience.

In Providence the mindset of the youth is pretty much that, if you want a good education you have to get into Classical and if you can’t do that than your next best option is one of the charter schools because no one can afford the private schools. Everyday students are making decisions to drop out because of the lack of excitement to learn in their classes, the lack of creativity with which classes are taught, the outdated information being fed to them, and teachers who don’t care enough.

School choice solves these problems not only by giving students the opportunity to attend high achieving institutions and an equal chance at a good education, but it also causes competition among the local schools which will cause them to improve. If those low scoring schools have no students they will be forced to improve their curriculum, making it more relevant and interesting to the students and also to only hire and keep teachers who are well qualified and who really care about the education of their students.

I strongly believe that school choice plays a pivotal role in changing our broken school system into one that will thrive and become more relevant, inspiring, encouraging, challenging, and one that will better prepare its students for whatever they decide to pursue after high school whether that means entering the workforce, becoming an entrepreneur or entering a post secondary institution. There is no excuse that can explain why statistics show that so many Providence public school students score below average in math, reading and writing and upon entering college have to retake basic remedial classes, which they should have already been taught in high school. I know a lot of people, myself included, who have no idea why we must take these basic math, english, and history classes again if this is material that we were expected to master in high school. Year and year again students are taught the same information, yet still do not understand it. Why? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that information is not being taught, its being crammed in, rushed through and passed over. Students aren’t being challenged to learn through application and critical thinking, but rather being taught to simply memorize facts in order to pass tests and then forget the information. And even though I attended Classical high school, “the best school in Rhode Island” I still rarely had the experience of being able to critically think and apply what I was learning.

The question before us now is not whether school choice could change people’s lives but rather when will we allow this change to take place? It is clear that school choice will make a difference, but are we going to give it a chance? Obviously it is clear that I believe we should, and I know many people who also agree. Will you join me in giving every student an equal opportunity to pursue an educational experience that will actually do what it is supposed to? High schools that will turn students into informed citizens, equipped with the necessary knowledge to make them capable of walking their path to success regardless of where that path may lead. 

Second-Year Report Card: Lack of Bold Action = Lack of Improvement

Related Links: 2012 Report Card

It isn’t surprising that a year of no bold legislative or executive action to free the Rhode Island economy or education system from its shackles, or to lighten the heavy hand of government, was a year of no significant improvement in the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s annual Report Card on RI Competitiveness.

What changes the Ocean State saw in the report card’s ten major categories came in large part due to changes of the subcategories, a technical change in the Center’s methodology, and tiny shifts that were able to cross a line into a new letter grade.  In 2012, Rhode Island had five grades of F, two of D-, two of D, and one of D+. In 2013, the tally is three of F, four of D-, one of D, and two of D+. (One of the lost Fs was purely a change in the method of ranking states.)

The sheer number of below-average grades does much to explain Rhode Island’s continuing economic decline and population exodus.

“For all the talk last year about the positive legislative steps we supposedly took, the state’s dismal grade point average has barely moved”, said the Center’s CEO, Mike Stenhouse. “We’ve all seen the depressing headlines, but when compiled into a single report, the report card shows how poor public policy is strangling economic opportunities for families in our state.”

The report card organizes 53 national rankings into the following major categories:

  • Tax Burden (D-)
  • Business Climate (F)
  • Spending & Debt (D-)
  • Employment & Income (D-)
  • K-12 Education (D+)
  • Energy (D+)
  • Infrastructure (F)
  • Public Sector (D)
  • Health Care (D-)
  • Living & Retiring in RI (F)

Whether the decision is thoroughly researched or simply based on impressions, these are the categories on which the Ocean State is judged when businesses and individuals make important decisions about their lives and their economic well-being. Having the information all in one place may be discouraging, but it gives those with a vested interest in the health of the State of Rhode Island clear guidelines for what problems must be addressed.

Dept. of Education School Report Cards Should Be Reviewed in Context

As part of its accountability initiative — ultimately relating back to President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act — the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) has compiled report cards for every public school in Rhode Island. In the spring, the department released its scores and rankings for schools teaching different grade levels, and the public is in the process of figuring out how to apply them to the civic debate.

According to RIDE’s fact sheet for its accountability system, elementary and middle schools achieve their scores based on the following categories:

  • 30 points for proficiency: Averaging reading and math scores, what percentage of students are “proficient” on the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests?
  • 5 points for distinction: Averaging reading and math, what percentage of students are “proficient with distinction” (i.e., highly proficient) on the NECAPs?
  • 30 points for gap-closing: Combining ethnic and economic categories into one group and special education and English-language learners into another, how much of a gap is there between such students’ scores and those of students not in either?
  • 10 points for progress: Does the school appear to be on track for targets set by RIDE for 2017?
  • 25 points for growth: Are students progressing from one year to the next compared with their academic peers? This measure also breaks students into three groups: “all students” and the groups described in “gap-closing.”

A conspicuous shortcoming of this methodology is that it effectively gives extra credit to schools that don’t have subgroups to compare for gap-closing purposes.  If a school doesn’t have a certain number of minority, English-language learner, special education, or economically disadvantaged students, those categories simply don’t count in the average, and the school gets 30 points toward its total.  That’s potentially the difference between “commended” and “typical.”

A review of the report cards for the 17 commended schools shows that nearly one in four has no subgroups at all — four of them, or 23.5%. Another 10 (58.8%) only have enough students in the “economically disadvantaged” category to count, and just three (17.6%) have data in the disability category.  (See here for all schools’ scores.)

A closer look at “economic disadvantage” is justified. That category is defined by participation in the National School Lunch Program, by which the federal government subsidizes meals for school children.  All students can participate, but those from households above 185% of the federal poverty level (FPL) pay a “regular price.”  In Rhode Island, 60% of participants receive reduced prices or free lunches.

For RIDE’s assessment purposes, however, the wide range in circumstances covered by this program should be acknowledged.  For a family of two parents and one child, 185% of FPL is income of $35,316.50. The same family with another child could make up to $42,642.50, and a two-parent, three-child household could earn up to $49,968.50 and still count as “economically disadvantaged.”

It doesn’t detract from the difficulty that such families can face to suggest that there’s quite a difference between growing up at the top of that scale and growing up in the grinding poverty more common in urban areas.

For context, consider the 17 schools at the bottom of RIDE’s ranking: all but one have scores for either black or Hispanic students; 11 count both. Fourteen schools (82.4%)  have enough students with disabilities to count.  Seven (41.2%) count English-language learners.  And every single one of them (100.0%) has economically disadvantaged students.

Click here for elaboration and context.

RI out-Migration to border Counties in MA and CT

County Out-Migration Should Be Alarm to Municipalities

For nearly a decade, taxpayers have been leaving Rhode Island. With cities and towns facing wave after wave of difficult decisions, a change of policy course is critical. Between 2003 and 2010, the net migration out of the state has left Rhode Island with 24,455 fewer income-tax-paying households with a total of $1.2 billion of annual income.

Scholarship Program Recommended for Special-Needs RI Students

Senators Ciccone and Walaska are called upon to take action to back up their own “School Choice Week” Resolution. Read the full Policy Brief here … with charts and end notes.

Stephen Hopkins Center supports our Center’s call for the Bright Today Scholarship Program


Bright Today Scholarship Program

Empowering Rhode Island’s Most Vulnerable Children with a Quality Education

Senators Ciccone and Walaska are called upon to take action to back up their own “School Choice Week” Resolution

January 26, 2012, Providence, RI — In recognition of National School Choice Week, the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity urges policymakers to adopt a school choice scholarship program for special-needs students. In light of the recent resolution co-sponsored by state Senators Ciccone and Walaska recognizing School Choice Week, the RI Center for Freedom calls upon the senators to follow up their welcome recognition with firm action, and respectfully requests that they provide the leadership necessary to see that legislation is adopted that provides a school choice scholarship program for disabled students in Rhode Island.

As follow up to its recently published education report, Closing The Gap, which demonstrated how recent Florida-style school reforms could aid disadvantaged students in the Ocean State, the Rhode Island Center for Freedom today issued a Policy Brief detailing how adoption of one, particular Florida reform – the McKay Scholarship Program – could empower Rhode Island’s most vulnerable and under-achieving students with new choices to receive a quality education.

As part of its “Bright Today” set of recommended school policy reforms, the RI Center for Freedom recommends that the Ocean State develop a scholarship program of its own, which would allow families with special-needs children to utilize public funding, in the form of a voucher – based cost of education in the school district they are leaving – to attend a private school of their choice. This recommendation is consistent with RI Department of Education’s (RIDE) strategic recommendations and can be implemented into law by the Rhode Island General Assembly.

The Policy Brief entitled the Bright Today Scholarship Program cites details from Closing The Gap that shows how Rhode Island students with disabilities are declining in achievement and have lost approximately (5) grade levels of learning to their peers in Florida since the Sunshine State implemented its school voucher system for such students, the McKay Scholarship Program, over 12 years ago. The Brief provides information about this program, including national perspectives, implementation details, and fiscal and academic impacts, as well as a summary of how other states have followed Florida’s lead in this area.

Earlier this month the Rhode Island Senate passed a resolution (#2064) recognizing National School Choice Week, citing that ” … Citizens across Rhode Island agree that improving the quality of education and expanding access to highly effective schools should be an issue of importance to our state’s leaders …”. The RI Center for Freedom calls upon the sponsors of this resolution, and all those who supported it, to take active and concrete steps to back-up their own resolution by developing and passing a Bright Today Scholarship Program bill for the Ocean State.

“The freedom to choose is a staple of almost every component of life in America except perhaps the most important area – education. With all the talk about providing for our state’s neediest residents, we challenge our public officials to actually do something about it”, said Mike Stenhouse, CEO for the RI Center for Freedom. “How can we not act to provide a ‘bright today’ for these families who have been left behind by our educational system? With public demand and leadership, by next fall, hundreds or thousands of our most disadvantaged students could be attending a better school”, added Stenhouse.

The non-partisan Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity is the state’s leading free-enterprise public policy think tank. Firm in its belief that freedom is indispensable to citizens’ well-being and prosperity, the Center for Freedom’s mission is to restore competitiveness to Rhode Island through the advancement of market-based reform solutions.

Read the full Policy Brief here … with charts and end notes.


What others are saying about our “Closing The Gap” Educational study

Visit the Closing The Gap home page here …

Our Closing The Gap study has struck a cord with parents and students, as well as organizations either supporting or resisting comprehensive educational reform in Rhode Island.  Below is a sampling:


Rhode Island Statewide Coaltion (RISC) commends our think tank for bringing forth a significant education study

The RI Statewide Coalition (RISC) is commending the RI Center for Freedom and Prosperity, a locally run reform-oriented think tank, for bringing forth the results of a wide ranging education study of Florida public schools which shows significant education gains can be made by non-English speaking, lower income urban students if the right curriculum reforms are enacted. RISC is also citing the study as evidence that the proposal to site two charter run Mayoral Academy schools in Providence deserves the chance to go forward.

“This study reveals that low income and minority students in our own state attending low performing schools in certain urban areas have a true chance at improving if aggressive reforms are supported and alternative options are allowed to grow,” states RISC Executive Director Harriet Lloyd. “If the jumps in test scores and overall performance improvements in key areas can occur for the most disadvantaged students in Florida’s public schools, why can’t they occur here? Improvements are slowly taking hold here under Commissioner Gist but she needs continued support and alternative school options need to be expanded.”

The study, called “Closing the Gap”, traced the gains made by overall low income students and by specific groups of Hispanic students in Florida public schools over the period of a decade starting in the year 2000. A wide ranging series of reforms which brought results included improved teacher performance and accountability; a transparent A to F grading system for individual public schools for better parental awareness; strong support for charter school options; and a ban on social promotion; among other policies. Test scores in core subjects like reading and math improved over the decade by up to 25%. By contrast, according to the study, overall test scores for Rhode Island students improved just 5% during the same time period.

Among other findings, the study’s authors say the gains made by the low income and minority students serve to debunk the conventional view that the socioeconomic backgrounds of students is the central factor in chronically low performing urban schools.

 Rhode Island Tea Party

Our children are our future–are we valuing them properly?

If the essential goal of educating our young children is to help them think more clearly and logically at a young age, to give them a strong foundation in reading, writing and math–and more, to help them attain a love of learning, then why are we failing so many in RI? Why are their reading scores so low, especially when we are pouring money into educating them? Is it because of poverty, or the inability of some students to learn, or lack of parent involvement, or lack of “resources”, or language barriers? Or is there something more insidious and fundamental at play? Is our system based on protecting special interests (e.g., tenured teachers, union bosses, legislators) at the cost of a stellar education?

By contrasting Florida’s free market oriented reforms with RI’s entrenched statist system, “Closing the Gap” offers striking evidence that that RI has failed. And more importantly, it offers specific solutions: a move toward freer markets in education (e.g., school choice), justice and transparency (grading schools and school districts from A-F, rewarding better teachers–merit pay, not seniority, i.e., incentivizing success), a ban on faking success (no social promotion, no automatic tenure), cutting bureaucratic red-tape in teacher credentialing, exploring virtual education, raising academic expectations by setting more rigorous standards.

In the future, we have the opportunity to read newspaper stories about more and more of our children succeeding in school. We can make that happen if parents and concerned citizens and politicians are willing to challenge the current system, which fails so many young children, and learn from the Florida situation. The facts tell an encouraging story.


 National Education Association of Rhode Island (Larry Purtell, President)

“We do need to continue in Rhode Island to diligently work to reach out and make sure all children are educated to the highest level possible, but this is nothing more than the same rhetoric from the same people with the same agenda.”; Alexander M. Sidorkin, Education Reform Examiner



CLOSING THE GAP Education Study Released

Go to: CLOSING THE GAP Home Page

Testimony of Giovanni D. Cicione, Esq., Senor Policy Advisor, to The Board of Regents of Elementary and Secondary Education. Preview of CLOSING THE GAP education study released on January 9. The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity submitted written testimony to the Board of Regents at their January 5 meeting regarding elementary and secondary eduacation. Giovanni Cicione, senior policy advisor to the Center, expects to be able to testify verbally at the next meeting of the Regents on Janauary 19.

The full testimony (below), also served as a preview of a major study the Center for Freedom, entitled, Closing The Gap. Visit the Closing The Gap home page here.


Testimony of Giovanni D. Cicione, Esq., Senor Policy Advisor, Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity

To The Board of Regents of Elementary and Secondary Education (submitted January 5, 2012)

Good Afternoon. My name is Giovanni Cicione and I am the Senior Policy Advisor for the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity. The Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, dedicated to providing concerned citizens, the media, and public officials with policy research and data, and advancing free-market solutions to public policy issues in the state.

Or intent in coming before you today was not specifically to weigh in on the debate regarding Achievement First. Rather, we intended to preview and share a study we will be releasing next week entitled “Closing the Gap.” This study, which I will reference n more detail in a moment, looks at reforms made in the state of Florida over 10 years ago that led to dramatic gains in educational achievement for some of the most challenged student populations in that state.

What is interesting from the perspective of today’s debate, is that much of the success in Florida over the last decade can be directly tied to the type of approaches advocated by Achievement First and similar organizations. And while I’m sure you will hear many criticisms of the mayoral academy model from the special interests who oppose these reforms, what our study demonstrates is that when these and other related reforms are put in place not only do you see overall gains, but that those gains are strongest amongst those students who are the most disadvantaged.

Non-English speakers, students who rely on free or reduced lunch support, and students with disabilities saw the most dramatic gains under the Florida reform model.

Our study will provide more detail and specific data when it’s released next week, but I’d like to highlight the key findings and recommendations.

Closing the Gap shows, for example, that Florida’s fourth-grade Hispanic students have improved so dramatically that they now perform at the same achievement as the average for all Rhode Island fourth-graders. Both states started out equally far behind, but Rhode Island students’ average score has improved by only (5) points since 1998, while Florida’s Hispanic students have improved by (25) points; equivalent to two-and-a-half grade levels’ of progress.

Imagine the impact if we had taken the same route ten years ago, when our own Hispanic children now preparing to graduate were just starting their grade school careers. Hispanics are the largest minority group in Rhode Island and represent 11 percent of the total population and 19 percent of the public school population. Unfortunately, Rhode Island Hispanic students have among the lowest (NAEP) scores in the nation in both math and reading. Closing the Gap shows the way to improve this ranking.

Closing the Gap cites reforms in evaluations and accountability for teachers and schools in the areas of transparency and parental choice. The study documents how the latest NAEP results strengthen the argument that Florida-style reforms should be considered for Rhode Island.

Closing the Gap explains in some detail why Florida’s reforms, while benefiting all students, have been especially beneficial to disadvantaged students. The study details the key components of Florida’s K-12 education reform strategy and makes specific policy recommendations that will provide more young Rhode Islanders with an opportunity to succeed in school and enhance their chance of pursuing and achieving their dreams.

Florida’s reform model includes:

• Public-school choice for students in low-performing public schools.

• Private-school choice for students with special-needs.

• An open door for new charter schools.

• Selective and effective se of virtual education.

• Performance pay to reward teachers who achieve student gains.

• Alternative teacher certification.

• A through F grading of all public schools; and

• A ban on social promotion.

These reforms were passed by a bi-partisan group of political leaders who faced many of the same criticisms you will hear today. They did it without empirical evidence that it would work, but they also new that to do nothing would be to condemn students to failure.

Your choice is a much easier one. I’d like to ask you to consider something – think for a moment about what you will say to a first grade student today who comes back here in a dozen years if you don’t adopt these types of reforms? What will you tell that student who asks why she is graduating with a 9th grade education after twelve years of instruction? Today you could perhaps claim that you didn’t’ know if the reforms would work, but Florida has shown us that they do – we cannot plead ignorance or even uncertainty when that child stands before you.

Why does Rhode Island suffer from the largest achievement gap among Hispanic students and other with unique challenges? Is it failing schools, a lack of funding, or is it something much worse … the soft bigotry of low expectations?

The Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity believes that every student can succeed, and that the only true disadvantage or disability is a rigid and moribund system that stacks the deck against them.

Thank you for the opportunity to be here today.


Government Edges into Preschool… Expensively

As part of government’s effort to edge its way into the preschool market, and the federal government’s slow usurpation of education more generally, Rhode Island will be receiving $12.5 million annually over the next four years.  As it typically goes with government, proponents begin with the positive objective that they seek to pursue and give the impression that the money simply appears for the purpose.  Not surprisingly, though, much of the money won’t go toward services actually provided to children.  According to the Providence Journal:

The grant requires that states adopt an ambitious plan to expand access for disadvantaged students and to develop high-quality standards across the fragmented early childhood education landscape. A significant portion of the grant will be used to train early childhood educators in these more rigorous standards.

That is, taxpayer dollars will be funding bureaucrats’ plans for how government can claim ownership of preschool and adult-education providers’ services for to teachers (for which, one can speculate, the latter will be compensated, as well).  Never mentioned in such stories is any sort of cost-benefit analysis.

Journalist Jennifer Jordan provides some context for government spending on preschool in a subsequent description of a program already existing in Rhode Island:

This year, 108 students are being served. The state’s education-financing formula calls for $1 million to be added each year for 10 years. Next year, the Board of Regents has re quested $1.45 million for six classrooms of 18 students.

A little bit of math shows that to be $242,000 per classroom and $13,426 per student.  For a “pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds.”  Speaking from experience, that’s roughly double the cost to parents of excellent programs available from private providers.  One can drape all variety of good intentions around specific programs, but from an economic-theory perspective, inexplicably high costs are about what one would expect when an organization is able to pay itself for services using money confiscated under force of law.