As part of Grow Smart RI’s ongoing effort to enhance the dialogue and decisions about Rhode Island’s future, Scott Wolf recently had the following op-ed published in the Providence Journal. Scott’s piece rebuts some unrealistically negative assertions about Rhode Island contained in an Ed Achorn February 9, 2010 column. Scott concludes that “To deal with the challenges facing us, we will be best served by a hard nosed look at the facts about our strengths and weaknesses rather than by a twisting and flouting of the facts that creates a false sense of hopelessness and desperation.”
Scott Wolf: Myth of a bloated R.I.
February 15, 2010
By SCOTT WOLF
Rhode Island has many serious social and economic problems, but one of its biggest problems is psychological — a tendency by many of our residents to always believe the worst about our state, even if the facts don’t warrant such a pessimistic conclusion. That self-flagellating and self-defeating tendency was pervasive in Edward Achorn’s Feb. 9 column, “Rhode Island is out of whack with the rest of America.”
To defend his premise, Achorn cites a number of research findings by Capers Jones, a member of the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition, several of which are either patently false or very misleading. Highlighting the false category is the assertion that Rhode Island has the largest number of school districts per capita in America. While this assertion feeds nicely into the oft repeated mantra that Rhode Island is uniquely and hopelessly inefficient, the facts tell a much different story. Extrapolating from state charts detailing each state’s population (Source: U.S. Census) and total number of school districts (Source: U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics), Rhode Island is not even close to having the largest number of school districts per capita in America. In fact, it has fewer school districts per capita than the national average!
You only have to look across the border to Massachusetts to find a state with more school districts per capita than Rhode Island — one for every 17,100 people vs. the Ocean State’s ratio of one school district for every 22, 357 people. Even the hallowed “Live Free or Die” state of New Hampshire has many more school districts per capita than the Ocean State — one school district for every 8,023 people.
Ironically, despite the conventional wisdom that Rhode Island is an outlier even within its own peer group of highly decentralized Northeastern states, we rank as one of the least balkanized of these states, with all the New England states plus New Jersey and Pennsylvania having worse ratios than us.
When you compare us to states in other regions, we are surprisingly mainstream. Kansas, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington all have more school districts per capita than does Rhode Island.
None of this suggests that we can’t and shouldn’t be more efficient given our small size and high population density, but it does suggest that we can shed some of our pronounced inferiority complex around the issue of governmental decentralization and bloatedness.
Nevertheless, you might find it difficult to feel anything but inferior if you took another of Capers Jones’s assertions at face value, namely that “Between 2000 and 2008, government employment in the state grew dramatically faster than the population did.” Since our state population was stagnant in this period, government employment didn’t have to grow much to “grow dramatically faster than the population.” Furthermore, according to 2008 U.S. Census data, the most recent available, Rhode Island has fewer state and local government workers per capita than the majority of the 15 small states with populations under 2 million. Couple this with the recent finding by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, in Albany, N.Y., that state and local government shrank more in Rhode Island during the last year (between June 2008 and June 2009) than in any other state, and it is hard to conclude fairly that Rhode Island government is a runaway train ready to suffocate the private sector.
To deal with the challenges facing us, we will be best served by a hard-nosed look at the facts about our strengths and weaknesses rather than by a twisting and flouting of the facts that creates a false sense of hopelessness and desperation.
Scott Wolf is executive director of Grow Smart Rhode Island.
In response to Edward Achorn: Rhode Island is out of whack with the rest of America [The Providence Journal]