Why Gov. McKee’s Learn 365 RI ducks real K-12 school reform

An extracurricular initiative with ambition this big will ultimately accomplish little

June 21, 2023 4:00 am

Clockwise from top left, Gov. McKee makes the rounds signing Learn 365 compacts with officials, in Providence, Newport, East Greenwich, Smithfield, and North Kingstown. (Rhode Island Current and Governors Office photos)

Learn 365 RI, Gov. Dan McKee’s education initiative this year, is an expensive gift to the mayors of Rhode Island. Through competitive grants, nearly $40 million is going to municipalities – not school districts. So it won’t be much of a benefit to the public school students and none at all to anyone who wants real change.  

In order to help Rhode Island student achievement catch up with Massachusetts’ student performance by 2030, participating cities and towns will create and expand “out-of-school learning opportunities for all students while helping us close learning gaps and increase student achievement.” 

These academically-oriented “opportunities” will take place after-school, weekends and summers, which is to say, outside the regular 180 six-hour school days.

The operant word is “outside.”

Learn 365 really should be called School Reform 360, so perfectly does it encircle and back away from the regular K-12 school day without so much as dipping a toe into the thick sludge that has mired Rhode Island schools and districts for decades.

Mind you, out-of-school-time (OST) activities, like bike repair, sports, salsa dancing, chess club, are essential to kids’ overall well being – no issue there. Rhode Island is so stingy with its support, OST advocates’ repeated efforts to get some predictable funding fell on legislative deaf ears this year, again.

But this money is available for Learn 365 because the McKee administration has some seriously big ambition. Just look at the list of three things this initiative is looking to improve:

  1. The Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS) mathematics and English Language Arts scores 
  2. School attendance rates 
  3. Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion rates.

Holy guacamole! The K-12 system couldn’t pull those off so the bike repair lady is going to get it done?

It gets weirder.

The grants last only 13 months, which is a nanosecond for any education initiative, especially one requiring extensive infrastructure. OST program administrators must form partnerships and write contracts with nonprofits that offer attractive programs, sailing, cooking, woodworking. They’ll supervise the adults involved, monitor enrollment data, troubleshoot glitches, resolve interpersonal conflicts, and handle transportation issues. No small lift.

But the Request for Proposal says, “given the time-limited nature of these funds, the grants should be used to build capacity which can be sustained in the future.” Really? The minute towns have the infrastructure in place, they’ll be out fundraising like crazy. 

Funders want data. Achievement scores are a “lagging indicator” anyway, meaning Learn 365 can argue that it takes years for initiatives to show results.  

But OST providers have a lot to teach K-12 about attendance. Their gold standard is how well program leaders create strong, caring, reliable relationships with kids, partly because relationships inspire high attendance. 

Learn 365 can’t change the outcomes of the stated goals. It’s a shiny distraction.

Johns Hopkins’ analysts crunched federal data to find that Rhode Island’s public schools had a 31.9% rate of chronic absenteeism in 2019, before the pandemic – fourth highest in the nation. (Chronic absenteeism is when a kid misses 18 days or more in a year.)

Attendance is a tough nut since out-of-school issues play a huge part. But schools do have control over nurturing kids’ strong connections to adults.

The state’s annually-administered opinions-and-perceptions survey, SurveyWorks, asks kids: “How connected do you feel to the adults at your school?” SurveyWorks expresses its data in positive terms, so to have the overall elementary answer be 52% “favorable” means 48% of the grades 3-5 kids experience little connection. At high school the favorable rate is 23%.

OST administrators would fire vendors with such results.

To boot, non-school staff have no earthly way of strengthening relationships in any school. Even if they do spark a passion for math, art or science, they have no control over whether that kid feels connected or bunks formal schooling.

Learn 365 can’t touch the outcomes of the stated goals. It’s a shiny distraction. Each time a municipality signs on to the initiative, the press release shows a happy mayor relishing any infusion of cash. It’s a feel-good effort.   

No other school reform is proposed. Yes, there’s more money on the table, aimed appropriately toward marginalized students, like multi-language learners.

But that’s it for this year. Kids and school reform advocates just have to wait for leadership willing to act with courage, urgency and vision.

Surely the Governor’s Office would deny that the nonprofit programs would be solely accountable for achieving those goals.

But unburdening the hamstrung K-12 system would have gotten the state infinitely closer to Learn 365’s definition of success.


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Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny

Julia Steiny was a Providence School Board member, a weekly education columnist for 22 years and is now a freelance writer who blogs erratically at