The state’s leaders must make the difficult choices now

It is not by accident that Gov. Donald L. Carcieri, Providence Mayor David N. Cicciline and leaders of the General Assembly – House Speaker William J. Murphy and Senate President Joseph A. Montalbano – are at the pinnacle of influence in Rhode Island.
They are all products of a well-endowed higher educational institutions, among them Brown University (Carcieri and Cicilline), but also the University of Pennsylvania (Montalbano), the University of Hartford (Murphy) and Georgetown University (Cicilline). Before they reached a high level of post-secondary education, they received solid elementary and secondary schooling, as should all children who live in the state.
Their perspectives, gained through their education and experience, should inform their approaches to help solve one of the state’s most difficult challenges – the opportunity costs and benefits of public education spending.
This is not a rant on the value public education provides in Rhode Island or whether teachers and administrators are properly compensated. It is not a diatribe of whether school districts should be consolidated to save costs. It won’t argue whether Halliburton and that ilk are siphoning federal tax dollars that could be funding education. No matter your perspective, responsible government should make decisions to serve the greater good.
There was a time not so long ago when the state absorbed the majority of public education costs and received reasonable supplemental federal funding. This is an issue of allocation of the public’s tax dollars. Those days are behind us, and the burden has rapidly shifted to the municipal level, where education now dominates funding at the risk of reducing other services.
Arguably, Providence, a city-state of sorts, is at the epicenter of this problem. But it may be the source of a solution as well.
The capital city’s density and demographics create a conundrum many argue unfairly burdens the rest of the state. How so? The city’s legislative delegation is a powerful one. As such, a large chunk of state education funding still in place remains in Providence. Therefore, most municipalities external to Providence are forced to cover the swelling education costs that are highlighted in annual budget meetings.
But doesn’t Providence increase its own property taxes?
Of course it does. However, the seldom-discussed 800-pound gorilla in the room is ironic. Brown University, and to a lesser extent Rhode Island School of Design, Johnson & Wales University and Providence College, enjoy tax abatement provisions as institutions of higher learning.
Under the able leadership of President Ruth J. Simmons – and with the financial clout that hundreds of millions of dollars in tuition, research grants and endowment earnings provide – Brown has been expanding its real estate holdings. The former owners of the property that Brown acquired did not have the benefit of tax abatement. Their property and income taxes helped to defray local and state operating expenses, including education.
The state’s leaders talk about an innovation economy. But innovation does not happen in a vacuum. It requires a work force that is well educated starting in grade school and hungry to learn more. Unfortunately, the General Assembly and the governor could not agree on a plan that improved funding for schools in the most recent legislative session. That is unfortunate.
A superior education should not be limited to a fortunate few. But the continuing impasse over adequate funding for the education of the state’s children seems to be leading us all in that direction.
Our leaders must return to the fair-share negotiating table. Perhaps it might begin with these institutions of higher learning and continue with our elected officials revisiting Rhode Island largest employers who lament the inadequate supply of in-state educated labor. Citizens have limited clout to turn the tide, but our civic, academic and business leaders have the responsibility to make the tough choices and negotiate a better deal on our behalf. It is time. •
Carl Sheeler is a former Marine officer, a small business owner and a father of five who was a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2006.

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