But Gist, for her part, says she has given labor a fair shake on Race to the Top. The unions had more access to top-level officials than any group during the development of the application, the commissioner insists. And she says the state had good reason to limit access to the document itself: the department, in competition with 40 other states around the country, did not want news of its most innovative proposals to leak out.

Now that Rhode Island’s major initiatives are in the public domain, Gist says, that kind of discretion won’t be necessary. And she has pledged to have an open dialogue with the unions as the deadline for second-round applications approaches on June 1.

But she seems unwilling to make significant concessions on top priorities, including a rigorous new teacher evaluation process that would make 51 percent of an instructor’s score contingent on student performance.

The unions maintain the system will be too rigid, given the disparities between the urban and suburban student bodies. Gist counters the system will give teachers in tough schools credit for student growth — even if those students continue to test below grade level. And while she is opening to some tinkering, the 51 percent standard will stay.

“For the most part, what I want to be engaging our teachers unions on is how we go about doing things,” she says, not “whether we do something. I’ve tried to be really up front about that.”

The commissioner appears to have the full support of the regents in this approach. Flanders, the board chairman, says the department of education will take seriously Washington’s push to boost union support for its reform program. But he adds that a state determined to press for wholesale reform, with or without Race to the Top dollars, will only go so far.
“We’re not going to sell our soul for a few federal shekels,” he says.

And they may not have to. The state, even if it makes relatively few concessions to the unions, could still have a solid shot at federal largess. Rhode Island ranked eighth in the first round of the competition, with only two states — Delaware and Tennessee — winning awards. And as many as a dozen states could get money in the second round. In fact, tempering the department’s plans could even hurt the state’s chances, Gist suggests.

But if the commissioner holds firm, critics say, she will be taking Rhode Island in a dangerous direction. Tough, radical reform of failing schools may sound good, they say, but it doesn’t do enough to acknowledge the complexity of the educational challenge.

“If you went to an impoverished, high-crime part of any city and, based on the statistics, decided to fire police officers, you’d think that’s crazy,” says Bruce Marlowe, a professor of educational psychology and special education at Roger Williams University, who has been critical of the commissioner’s approach.

But if the market-driven approach is flawed, many traditionalists acknowledge, their own answer to the challenges of public education — more pre-kindergarten and after-school programs, a better societal response to problems of poverty and hunger — is not terribly satisfying.

Gist bristles at all the talk of factors beyond educators’ control. “I get very concerned when I hear people tell me the litany of reasons why their students are not being successful,” she says.

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