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Duncan defies Rhode Island unions by declaring his support for Deborah Gist

Jun 6, 2013 by

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Everyone wants Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist to stay for another three years.

Everyone except the state’s teachers unions, that is.

Rhode Island’s top education official is seeking a three year contract extension and the state board of education is set to vote on the issue tomorrow evening, Fox Providence reports.

Gist, a strong proponent of education reform, has implemented more stringent teacher evaluations, enforced higher graduation requirements, and implemented other reforms that helped the state land $125 million in education funding through President Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” education reform initiative, according to the news site.

The state’s teachers unions commissioned a poll which shows more than 80 percent of teachers want Gist to hit the road because they feel less respected than when she came into office in 2009, media reports show.

But this week several high profile folks stepped in to show their support, including U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who praised Gist in a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Fox Providence reports.

“By just about every measure, Rhode Island is heading in the right direction,” Duncan said. “So I think it’s important to take out personality issues or whatever might be and look at what’s happening for children.”

The National Education Association Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers are more concerned about what another three years with Gist might mean for school employees.

Gist supported Central Falls Superintendent Francis Gallo in 2010 when she fired all the teachers at the local high school when they refused to put students above contract demands. She’s also supported a focus on standardized testing, eliminating seniority, and other reforms that go against the union grain.

For her efforts, the state’s teachers unions have tried their best to make Gist out to be “an Attila The Hun type-bully who discourages dissent and rules with an iron fist,” as GoLocalProv columnist Russell Moore put it.

Gist earned $203,000 last year and her supporters believe she’s well worth the money. Data shows student academics are improving.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee and state Board of Education Chairwoman Eva Marie Mancuso are big fans, and so are education reformers and business leaders familiar with her work.

More than 20 Rhode Island business groups sent a letter to Chafee and the Board of Education urging them to renew Gist’s contract.

Doing so would not only mean a continued focus on reform,  but would prevent powerful political forces like the state’s teachers unions from taking advantage of the vacancy if she leaves, according to the letter.

“A three-year contract renewal would help ensure that the commissioner has sufficient time to help guide the new gubernatorial term,” the letter said, according to Fox Providence.

“A contract renewal shorter than three years may result in a transition that too closely aligns with the campaign season, which would unnecessarily result in heightened politicization of the Department of Education.”

Duncan defies Rhode Island unions by declaring his support for Deborah Gist – EAGnews.org powered by Education Action Group Foundation, Inc..

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