Chafee makes his mark on education reform

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  February 2, 2011

CHAFEE has called for a “thoughtful pause” on charter school expansion.

The State House was mostly empty Tuesday afternoon, as the snow dropped cold and wet outside. So the crowd was rather modest as Governor Lincoln Chafee walked into the ornate State Room, just outside his office, to announce four new picks for the nine-member Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education.

But the selections, despite the modest rollout, could be among the most consequential of the governor's administration.

Love it or hate it, Rhode Island's market-driven education reform movement — charter schools, tougher teacher evaluations, higher graduation standards — has been a juggernaut over the last couple of years.

The state's Democratic establishment, most notably Speaker of the House Gordon Fox and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, has bucked the teachers unions and voiced strong support for the reform push.

And the business types — who, incidentally, write the occasional check for a political campaign — have been stalwart supporters of the movement and its hard-charging leader, education commissioner Deborah Gist.

So when Chafee voiced skepticism about the movement on the campaign trail — pointing, in particular, to charter schools' mixed record nationwide — the reform crowd grew nervous about how he might reshape the Board of Regents if elected.

The anxiety only mounted earlier this week when Chafee moved board chairman Robert G. Flanders, a key Gist ally, off the panel and into the high-profile post of Central Falls receiver.

But the picks fit into a broader Chafee pattern, when it comes to high-profile picks: tapping well-respected figures, many of them Democratic insiders, while still managing to surprise.

Chafee's choice to replace Flanders as chairman, former House Majority Leader George Caruolo, certainly fit the bill. The nominee's intelligence and political skills command broad respect on Smith Hill, but he's been out of the political circuit for some time; at the press conference, he said he hadn't stepped foot in the State House since leaving office in 1998.

Chafee has built a reputation for independence and a moderate politics, and he has sought to imbue his choices for key offices with that aura; indeed, Caruolo — at first blush — doesn't seem the anti-reform ideologue that some in the reform movement feared.

During his time in the legislature, he was a vocal supporter of charter schools. And like Chafee, he has a reputation for independence.

The philosophies of Chafee's three other appointees to the board — Carolina B. Bernal, program director at the Institute for Labor Studies, Robert L. Carothers, former president of the University of Rhode Island, and Mathies J. Santos, a former education department official who now works as the Rhode Island outreach associate for the Boston Veteran Affairs Research Institute — remained a cipher in the hours after the announcement. And that had the education reform crowd striking a wait-and-see posture in public.

Bill Fischer, spokesman for the Rhode Island branch of Democrats for Education Reform, said the nominees are clearly "very talented." But his group was withholding judgment, he said, until it could get a better handle on the views of the four picks.

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