The following is an op-ed contribution on education reform from Rep. Liana Cassar (D-dist. 66, Barrington, East Providence) and Rep. Terri Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown)

A good education should be a right for Rhode Island’s children.

And while our state has a checkered record of delivering on this responsibility, we firmly believe that Rhode Island has what it takes to identify the solutions we need. 

We joined the nearly 400 Rhode Islanders — leaders, educators, parents, students and more —who participated in the early December event organized by the Rhode Island Foundation to help brainstorm strategies to create systemic change in our educational system, and we were deeply impressed by the engagement, knowledge and open-mindedness of all in the lively conversations of the day.

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This productive event showed that our state has a population of parents and students who want to be involved in the conversation with the educators and administrators to assure that the needs of all students are met with high-quality educational opportunities and the appropriate social-emotional support to thrive.

We have sent our children to Rhode Island public schools. We are a former school committee member and a public health professional who came to this event with experience, but left with new insight and hope about the capacity to turn our educational system into one that is truly excellent.

It cemented our belief that Rhode Island would benefit from models of education where students lend their voices in shaping their own education. Integrating parent and student input and engagement would provide critical ownership and would help ensure that the needs of students and families are truly being met. Diversification of our educator population is needed, to include men, people of color, and individuals who need flexible work arrangements. Students need cultural awareness, and will benefit from having teachers who have a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences.

We must be willing to take an honest look at real data, and stop relying on and perpetuating truisms about specific communities. All districts can and should improve, need adequate funding to do so, and need transformational leaders. We need to address alternate pathways to allow students to demonstrate proficiency and to take accountability for their education. We all can see  that one size does not fit all – not all districts, nor all schools or students. Schools need flexibility to serve the needs of their own students.

We must acknowledge the real challenges that arise from conflicting interests of unions and school districts, but refuse to consider it an insurmountable challenge to school improvement. We have many talented educators who want to be effective. We can identify ways to attract and develop high-quality educators and provide them with further training so they can help institute the innovation needed to make our schools places students want to be and where they can thrive. 

We both left the forum with new energy to work collaboratively with students, parents, teachers, administrators and community and state leaders to transform our schools. We know we can do this. Our neighbor Massachusetts once had similar struggles, and now provides both hope and a model of excellence for us to follow.

We will continue to advocate to improve the state of education in Rhode Island because we understand that this is what’s right for the future of our children’s health, economic success and their lives, which will in turn make for a stronger future for our state.

Rep. Liana Cassar and Rep. Terri Cortvriend are Democrats serving their first term in the General Assembly representing District 66 in Barrington and East Providence and District 72 in Portsmouth and Middletown, respectively.