The more things change in Rhode Island ...

Posted 11/3/21

STORY OF THE WEEK: November is almost here, signaling the approach of the holiday season and a general lull in the growing drumbeat of Rhode Island's 2022 campaign season. That makes this a good time to take the temperature of a few key indicators on the

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The more things change in Rhode Island ...



November is almost here, signaling the approach of the holiday season and a general lull in the growing drumbeat of Rhode Island’s 2022 campaign season. That makes this a good time to take the temperature of a few key indicators on the local economy and education.

On the latter, the latest RICAS scores show how Rhode Island remains in a familiar place. While standardized tests don’t tell the whole story, it’s clearly not good when fewer than 20 percent of students demonstrate proficiency in math and fewer than 33 percent in English. Stepped-up efforts to improve public education in Rhode Island ran headlong into the pandemic, so some regression isn’t unexpected. Still, the need to improve public education in the state remains a pivotal quest, decades after first being cited as a key need.

Similarly, on the economy, lackluster results in the I-195 District point to the difficulty of moving the ball.

“I think all the pieces are in place” for the district to become an economic generator, wealthy real estate investor Joseph Azrack, then-chairman of the 195 District Commission, told me back in 2016.

However, as WPRI-TV’s Steph Machado reports, the commission’s land sales over the last 10 years barely top $1 million, and that’s only about 10 percent of the annual debt service paid by taxpayers.

This is another reminder of Rhode Island’s familiar economic challenges, even as former Gov. Gina Raimondo continues to light up Google alerts with her wide-ranging portfolio as U.S. Commerce secretary. While Raimondo often spoke about the need to foster an innovation economy, Rhode Island was one of only two Northeast states to lose jobs in tech areas like advanced manufacturing over the second half of the pre-pandemic decade, as I reported in April.

Are there positive things happening in Rhode Island? Of course. In a Twitter thread, Matt Jerzyk aptly points to “SOME measurable and hopeful progress” unfolding in the Jewelry District, near the I-195 District. Still, as we race toward 2022, virtually anyone who returned after leaving 20 years ago would easily recognize the state’s most pressing challenges.


Hundreds of Rhode Island children are poisoned each year by lead, which can cause life-long damage to the brain and nervous system. Now, as my colleague Sofie Rudin reports, Attorney General Peter Neronha is turning up the pressure on property owners who fail to take state-requested action to fix lead hazards by taking them to court: “Neronha and his staff said the office may have filed similar civil complaints in the early 2000s, but they have no record of bringing a lawsuit in at least the last five years. ‘I don’t want to say there’s never been a complaint filed in the past,’ Neronha said. ‘There may have been. But certainly, there has not been a lot of enforcement activity by this office in recent years.’ Similarly, the health department has authority to fine property owners who fail to fix lead hazards. But spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said the department hasn’t issued any fines in the last five years.”


It used to be that Democrat Linda Finn and Republican Dan Reilly used to trade off in representing House District 72 every few cycles. Now, we learn that former state Sen. Mark McKenney, who defeated Sen. Jeanine Calkin (D-Warwick) in 2018, is seeking a rematch for the seat won back by Calkin from McKenney last year. (McKenney ran with leadership support in the past, so it’s unsurprising that he still has it.) More broadly, this underscores expectations that legislative primary and general elections will be widely and fiercely contested next year, particularly amid the ongoing push by the RI Working Families Party and the Rhode Island Political Cooperative to elect more progressive lawmakers.


The fight over adding a bike lane on South Water Street in Providence punched above its weight in generating strong emotions and sharp tensions among some of those on the different sides.

“It’s endlessly weird to me how many people want to drag bicyclists into a culture war, when we’re just trying to get to work, to get to school, have fun or get fit,” Liza Burkin, lead organizer for the Providence Streets Coalition, said last week on Political Roundtable. “And all we’re asking for is a little more help not to get hurt or killed when we do those things, and we’re trying to get ourselves out of the way of drivers. We want the same things, which is not to annoy each other, not to hit each other.”

Burkin calls the South Water Street bike lane – part of an envisioned larger citywide trail network – a way to make Providence a more vibrant and cosmopolitan city.

Representing the other side of the issue, Sharon Steele, president of the Jewelry District Association, maintains that City Hall has fallen down in its implementation of bicycle infrastructure while not heeding concerns expressed by various stakeholders.

“Safety, traffic and business concerns have all been ignored by the city,” Steele said. She said earlier changes on Clifford Street are marred by shortcomings. Steele also believes that streets narrowed for car traffic by bike lanes are below a minimum standard and pose a safety risk. “These are things that are going to happen,” she said, “and as the public and the city sees what is happening in the real world on the ground, it would seem that they’re going to have to make some adjustments.”


Is the media landscape glass half-full or half-empty in Rhode Island? A strong case can be made for the former, given how reporters compete for stories, the Boston Globe and some other new entries have come on the scene in recent years (and we continue to add staff at The Public’s Radio), and there’s a collective focus on public interest-minded reporting. On the flip side, lots of communities (East Providence, for example, to name a newsy place close to the capital city) no longer get the day-in, day-out coverage of municipal government that used to be the case when the ProJo still had a vaunted network of statewide bureaus.

The Knight-Cronkite News Lab reports that television “news directors and their bosses are increasingly concerned about a more immediate problem: the pipeline of talent for both sides of the camera is drying up.” This story cites a few different factors, including meager pay and the increased ability of larger markets to Hoover up talent from smaller ones. It also exacerbates the challenge amid news consumers’ changing viewing habits. That’s a concern in Rhode Island, since TV and TV-based websites (particularly our enterprising friends at WPRI) have taken up some of the slack caused by the shrinking number of print reporters in the state.


It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times. With a few clicks, a world of useful information awaits. Or conspiracy theories and rabbit holes.

How well do young Rhode Islanders understand various kinds of media? Here are some of the findings of a new statewide survey on media literacy by the Media Education Lab: “Only 1 in 3 middle-school students in Rhode Island experience media literacy education activities like learning how to distinguish between information and opinion in the news, thanks to significant efforts by school librarians – in the schools that have them. Nearly two-thirds of high school students got to develop a research project where they represented their learning through the use of print, images, and multimedia. But only a small proportion of students learned about topics in media literacy that relate to financial literacy, civic education, or health and well being.”


Meta? Seriously? Providence-based AP writer Matt O’Brien (who wrote this story with Kelvin Chan) isn’t super-vibing on the Metaverse: “Zuckerberg’s embrace of the metaverse in some ways contradicts a central tenet of its biggest enthusiasts. They envision the metaverse as online culture’s liberation from tech platforms like Facebook that assumed ownership of people’s accounts, photos, posts and playlists and traded off what they gleaned from that data.”

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org. You can follow him on Twitter@IanDon. For a longer version of this column or to sign up for email delivery, visit www.thepublicsradio.org.

politics, op-ed, Donnis


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