But if she looks different than other free-market reformers, it is hard to escape the conclusion that she is very much in their camp. Gist struggles to name a major initiative that would put her at odds with the market-driven crowd. And she trumpets the virtues of charter schools as reform laboratories, while acknowledging they are no panacea.
Even the commissioner’s configuration of her downtown Providence offices suggest an ideological bent: Gist has knocked down the walls and created a bullpen-style office of the sort that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg imported from Wall Street.
Gist, moreover, is a graduate of what may be the pre-eminent training program for free-market reformers: the Broad Foundation’s Superintendents Academy, a highly competitive 10-month course that schools private sector, military, and education leaders in “the business of urban education.”
Founded by billionaire financier Eli Broad eight years ago, the academy has watched its alumni secure key posts in some three dozen of the nation’s largest school districts.
Newly installed Kansas City Superin-tendent John Covington made national headlines when his school board voted to close nearly half the district’s schools after years of mismanagement and declining student enrollment. Vincent Matthews, appointed by the state of California to fix the troubled Oakland school system, has emerged as an important advocate of charter schools.
Gist, the first graduate of the superintendent’s academy to win a job as state commissioner of education, remains in the Broad orbit; she tapped Eli Broad’s foundation, along with the Aspen Institute and the Rhode Island Foundation, for help developing the state’s Race to the Top application.
And she has ties to other avatars of the new reform. There are connections to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. And she helped lure Teach for America, a non-profit that places graduates of top-flight colleges in some of the toughest public schools in the nation, to the state.
Supporters say Gist is intent on using all of the tools at her disposal — the training, the connections — to improve the lot of Rhode Island students. And she is not all that concerned about pissing off adults in the process.
Indeed, while Gist listens to a broad spectrum of views, backers say there are limits to what she will tolerate. “She can be brusque,” says Robert G. Flanders, chairman of the Board of Regents. “She doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She is someone who is all about the mission and how to get there.”
But Walsh, the affable union chief, suggests that approach could pose long-term problems in a state as intimate as Rhode Island: “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down and there’s not a lot of Mary Poppins here.”
The main source of friction, at the moment: officials from the state’s two major teachers unions say Gist did not give them a meaningful opportunity to shape a Race to the Top application that will help guide reform in the state.
Labor only glimpsed the document when it was made available to the public just before it was finalized, Walsh says. Union officials were not allowed to take copies home for review. And the concessions the department made to their concerns were just around the edges.
‘A FEW FEDERAL SHEKELS’
Alienating the unions, a still-powerful if diminished force in Rhode Island politics, could have consequences for Gist’s agenda in the schools and the state legislature.