Rhode Island Democrats and Independents Key to Driving Statewide Education Reform

Rhode Island is a blue state when it comes to legislative politics. A very, very blue state.

In presidential elections since 1928, Rhode Island has voted Republican just four times (1952, 1956, 1972, and 1984). And to further illustrate this point, the following are the party breakdowns in each assembly chamber for 2013:

2013-10 RI Poll Blog FIGURE 1
That is just the current snapshot of the Democrat Party’s dominance in Rhode Island.

In the current ed reform climate, we commonly see Republicans and self-described political conservatives supporting school choice reforms, such as vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and public charter schools. In the Rhode Island K–12 and School Choice Survey the Friedman Foundation released today, we continue to see that pattern.

However, a dose of realism is in order. To gauge the possibilities of statewide education reform in Rhode Island, the views of Democrats and Independents are crucial.

So what did we learn about those two important groups in our latest state poll? We obtained healthy sample sizes for Democrats (N=182; 30 percent of total sample) and Independents (N=284; 47 percent of total sample), so we can consider their opinions with a measure of reliability.


2013-10 RI Poll Blog FIGURE 2
Among Democrats, the favor-oppose margin (+18 points) is fairly large in the positive direction. The intensity (i.e., “strongly favor” minus “strongly oppose”) is also positive: +7 points.

2013-10 RI Poll Blog FIGURE 3
Independents were also more likely to support vouchers (margin = +14 points; intensity = +5 points).

Even when considering our baseline voucher question – without any definition or description – both Democrats and Independents were more inclined to support vouchers:

2013-10 RI Poll Blog FIGURE 4
We also asked a pair of questions – rotated in the interview – to see to what extent Rhode Islanders agreed/disagreed with (1) universal eligibility and (2) means-tested eligibility. As it would be expected, compared to other demographics, higher proportions of Democrats disagreed with (1) and agreed with (2). That said, even Rhode Island’s Democrats were more likely to agree with universal eligibility (56 percent) than with means-testing (47 percent).

Independents don’t align at all with Democrats on the pair of eligibility questions. In fact, the former look a lot more like Republicans. There is substantially higher support among Independents for universal eligibility (65 percent) than there is support for means-testing (24 percent).

Tax-Credit Scholarships

Rhode Island has been operating a small-scale tax-credit scholarship program since 2007. Nearly 400 students used scholarships in the 2012–13 school year. Unfortunately, participation (hamstrung by the program’s budget) is likely too small to have generated much awareness about the public policy. Despite the small scale, Rhode Islanders overwhelmingly support tax-credit scholarships in our survey by two to one (57 percent favor vs. 28 percent oppose).

2013-10 RI Poll Blog FIGURE 5
The positive intensity among Independents (+12 points) is double the intensity of Democrats (+6 points). It’s clear both groups in the survey are likely to support tax-credit scholarships.


For about a 15-year period (1991–2006), Rhode Island earned a reputation for state policy innovativeness. But that boldness appears to have tapered off in recent years.

As a nationally prominent “education reform” commissioner, Deborah Gist (D) has indeed taken bold steps. The Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Strategic Plan lays out a game plan for comprehensive reform in K–12 education.

However, the department and its plan are silent on school choice possibilities. Parents are mentioned just three times in the 31-page document, and not in a substantive way that addresses schooling needs of families.

On the other hand, our new survey results for Rhode Island provide a road map of sorts for Commissioner Gist and other Democratic leaders around the state. The Democratic and Independent responses on the school choice questions – such as vouchers and tax-credit scholarships – signal a window of opportunity to strongly consider new school choice policies and fundamentally reform the way the state engages school parents and their children.