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74 Interview: Soon-to-be Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee on COVID-19 Response and Using Community-Based Afterschool Programs to Make Up For Lost Learning

By Asher Lehrer-Small | February 10, 2021

Rhode Island Lt. Gov. Dan McKee speaks during a January press conference, shortly after Gov. Gina Raimondo was nominated to serve as President Biden's Secretary of Commerce. Once she is confirmed, McKee will become RI governor. (David L. Ryan/Getty Images)

Big changes are afoot in the nation’s smallest state.

In the middle of Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo’s second term, the chief executive was tapped by the Biden administration for the position of U.S. commerce secretary. After a friendly Senate hearing Jan. 26 and a 21-3 vote in Raimondo’s favor from a preliminary committee, the Ocean State native is expected to advance to Washington once the full Senate body votes on her confirmation in the coming days or weeks. Now, amid a global pandemic that has caused dangers such as suicide, malnutrition, and severe learning loss to spike among youth, Lt. Gov. Dan McKee, a former small-town mayor, prepares to assume the state’s top job.

Under Raimondo’s leadership, Rhode Island won appreciation for its schools’ swift transition to distance learning when COVID-19 first hit, then again made national headlines for its aggressive push for students to return to classrooms in the latter months of 2020, also largely spearheaded by the governor.

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As Raimondo now hands off a number of key education issues — including charter school expansions, plans to address learning loss during the ongoing pandemic, and a state takeover of the Providence district — the man picking up the baton is no stranger to public schools.

In his political start as Cumberland mayor, McKee made education a cornerstone of his work. He innovated a new model of public charter school that requires academies to draw students from neighboring districts for diverse-by-design classrooms and seat at least one of those towns’ mayors as a board member. The mayoral charter model has produced promising outcomes and spread across much of the Ocean State.

Stepping into the governorship at a time when worries for students are widespread, McKee talked about his bold ideas for addressing “COVID slide,” teacher vaccines and the future of the Providence takeover.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: Everything’s changing so quickly in Rhode Island. What’s top of mind on education for you?

McKee: Yeah, so top of mind right now is, obviously, the COVID issue. And the vaccination. We want to prioritize teachers in that mix, to come shortly after our most vulnerable. So that’s a key issue right now, getting kids back in the classroom. That’s front and center right now.

Long term, it’s an extension of the work that I’ve been involved in since I was a mayor. We have 39 cities and towns in Rhode Island and we want to make sure that all our leaders, municipal leaders, are engaged with supporting the learning of our students.

When I was a mayor, I got a statute passed that opened up a municipal education department. It [focused] on early childhood education, but also went all the way through senior year of high school. That’s been a very valuable resource. We’re running programs for young kids all the way up to high school, whether it’s reading or math, art, music, science, different types of civics, entrepreneurial strategies. That’s done year-round to help supplement [in-school learning].

I’m going to be in a position where we’re going to encourage all 39 cities and towns to do what I did especially in the backdrop of COVID and the loss of learning time. … I’ve said this over and over again, but it doesn’t matter if it’s high, low-income or moderate income, it doesn’t matter if you’re a minority or not a minority, if you’re going to a public school, private school, whether you’re a boy or girl, the lost learning time right now should be a really high priority for us to tackle.

And so this is an absolute way that we can be intentional about getting on top of the hours that have been lost. By creating municipal education departments all around the state the way that I did in Cumberland, that’s operated now for 15 years. Our school districts are going to have everything they can handle just to run a normal day when they get back. So the catch-up is going to be virtually impossible for them to do inside of the time frame that they have with the young kids.

A lot of people are talking about this issue of the “COVID slide” and how to catch students up. Can you say a little more about what these municipal education departments would look like?

Yeah, so we have one [in Cumberland] and it’s been operating for 15 years. You bring in educators, retired, under-employed teachers, current teachers, and we run a reading program. It’s kind of like when you were 10 years old, taking a piano lesson. We structure curricula, and we have these programs that families sign their kids up for, and they come in a couple times a week for a reading lesson, or a math lesson, or a music lesson. We have thousands of kids that visit through that program every year.

So now, customizing that model to communities around the state in terms of how to address their individual needs in different communities. For instance, if you have a language issue, that’s a deterrent [to learning], well, you can put in a language conversion strategy, and really promote that.

And then if you align it with the school districts, which I’m going to have that opportunity now as governor to make sure that we get buy-in all over the state, including from the Rhode Island Department of Education, now you can actually even do better, right? Because now you might be able to physically use school space for this program, outside of the school day. Or you can do what we did. We converted a 6,000-square-foot space on the backside of our library that now functions every day for academic programs for kids.

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It’s very cost effective, too. Because of the way it’s structured, you’re able to leverage the investment that was made on an annual basis. And then we do have some level of program fees for families who can afford it, non-program fees for families who can’t afford it. So it’s sustaining from a program strategy perspective.

These municipal education departments can actually help pick up that lost learning time in an intentional way. I mean, it’s not going to cover all of it, but it’s going to really give us a jump-start.

Fascinating. I’ve never heard of anything like that.

That’s what I’m saying, you know, I don’t think you can find one. And I did it by statute, so it’s layered into the budget, it’s all layered into the tax rate. And I’m looking forward to potentially using some of the stimulus dollars that were earmarked to help education, to spearhead these things all over the state of Rhode Island.

Would you consider tying stimulus money to the creation of these departments?

I am. I’m considering it. I think that I’ve seen a path to create the early type of funding to help establish these in communities as they roll it into their budget. But yes, the answer is yes.

So just to clarify, cities would be only eligible for education-related stimulus funds if they make steps toward creating a municipal education department?

Well, we’d only take a small piece of the dollars that could be allocated to the communities for district schools. We’d only take a small piece of that. We would still distribute dollars that would be available on some equitable allocation strategy. And then we reserve some of the funds to kick off [municipal education centers] in as many communities that would want them.

You were known as something of a mayor’s lieutenant governor. I’m wondering what mayor’s think of that idea of the municipal education department in their own locales?

We had a handful of mayors already before COVID hit starting to think about passing their own statute and opening up these offices. We’ll start with the communities that are interested. When we put some resources on the table, which I think we can with the federal dollars that are coming in through these stimulus programs, I think that more people will be actively thinking about it.

It’s a territory that mayors don’t always dip their toe into. But when you start talking about this lost learning time, and the understanding that our school districts are going to have all they can handle to just do what they need to do right now, I think it’s more likely that we’ll have the partnership between mayors’ offices and school departments.

Transitioning to the mayoral charter schools that you helped found, could you tell me about the inspiration behind them?

Yeah, so it actually was the kids that I coach in basketball, back in my Boys & Girls Club days. We played at a very high level and the boys, we won a couple state tournaments, went to four national tournaments.

We had a number of young people, primarily kids of color, coming from poor situations that, when it came time to attend a local community college, they weren’t ready to take any classes. And that was an eye opener. I thought that everybody was getting a fair shake in their education. That was my wake-up call.

So when I was at the [Harvard] Kennedy School, I started to think about mayors’ involvement in education. In my hometown, we were having some trouble with our schools, some failure. And so we asked ourselves, if we started a public school from scratch, what would it look like and how would it operate?

Now, we’ve graduated our third high school class at that particular school [that the idea led to], Blackstone Valley Prep, which is kind of a map of what you would normally see in our area, those four communities, in terms of number of kids of color, kids not of color, and, you know, kids that are coming from families with a certain level of income.

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And we’ve been able to increase that footprint with another mayoral academy in northern Rhode Island, another mayoral academy in the city of Providence.

But we have enough [charter schools] right now in the mix, to tell you the truth, with the new [charters] that will be approved to let that roll out for a couple of years.

Our focus is going to be into the district schools to help kids in that space excel.

What would that look like?

I think it’s going to look like partnering with the current structure without being demanding, right? You’re going to have to create partnerships, and you’re going to have to listen to the people who are running those schools, including the labor groups, and you’re going to sit down and say, “How are things going and how do we make things better?” You can’t just drive in and demand change. Our approach is going to be, “OK let’s, let’s hear what you think can happen.” Providence included. Providence is a takeover model right now, and this COVID has only compounded those problems.

Right, I was going to ask what’s to come for Providence in the takeover?

Yeah, too early to tell. The way you’re going to create positive change is not by saying, “We’re going to do it my way.” The people who are actually in the classrooms, they don’t take kindly to that. So, I think you need to have some level of patience. But, you know, it’s a courageous patience, right? It’s making sure that you’re plugging ahead on behalf of the kids, but also understanding that you’re working with a system that has been around for a long time.

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Thank you. Do you mind if I spitball through a few quick questions that might be on some people’s minds? 

Not at all.

First, I know that you were part of the team that revamped the state’s education funding formula, and I was wondering what Rhode Islanders should expect to see in terms of school funding during your governorship?

Yeah, that’s the thousand-dollar question against budget constraints right now. It will depend a lot on what the federal stimulus does. Our anticipation with the new president is that there’s going to be support for states and municipalities.

[In terms of accounting for high-cost students in the funding formula,] up to a certain threshold, the local community should take it and after that the state should cover it, again, with the understanding that you’re going to get some results from it. So attaching funding with kind of a results-oriented strategy makes sense.

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Now shifting gears to the Rhode Island Promise Program, which Gov. Raimondo started [and provides two years of free community college to in-state students]. I was wondering, because there’s a sunset provision on that law, whether you plan to push for it to become permanent?

Yeah, I think that that’s good. On the community college level that first two years, I think we’re going to support that. And again, I think that President Biden’s going to actually make that more real than less real, too. I’m hearing that the Pell Grants are going to get increased. So I think in that area, I think things look pretty bright for students in Rhode Island.

Since this conversation took place, Rhode Island Speaker of the House Joe Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio introduced legislation to make the RI Promise program permanent.

To close, what do you see as Gov. Raimondo’s legacy when it comes to education? And where do you see yourself specifically departing from her policy stance?

I’ll let the reporters decide how we differ.

And in terms of the governor’s legacy?

I think she made a very good effort to do some good things on education in the state, but I think that we need to do better.

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