PROVIDENCE, R.I., -- In March, Rhode Island College laid off 13 teachers who serve visually impaired students at the Sherlock Center on Disabilities at Rhode Island College. The Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDOE) said that services provided by the Sherlock Center, including Braille and mobility instruction, would not be interrupted.
On Thursday, education commissioner Angelica Infante-Green said that after listening to dozens of parents whose children need these services, she will ask the General Assembly to fund the vision-services program at RIC. “The legislature used to fund it,” Infante-Green said. “Rhode Island College President Sannchez and I will talk to the legislature about this line item [in the 2021-2022 budget].”
According to the RIDOE, the teachers were laid off because their five-year contract expired last year and the department will be putting it out to bid. Emily Ward, RIDOE spokesperson, said, “Since there are now other vendors providing these services in Rhode Island, the state is obligated to allow competitive bidding.” She continued, “The Sherlock Center is welcome to bid...There is no intention to end or disrupt services for students receiving vision education services, and we remain committed to sustaining the strategic direction for vision services in the state.”
Rhode Island had previously received a $600,000 federal grant through the RIDOE under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The grant was intended to help districts pay for vision services for students with disabilities. Lobbyist for the Rhode Island Association of School Superintendents. Tim Ryan, said the $600,000 will now be used to professionally train teachers instead of providing direct access to services for students who are visually impaired.
“What I’ve been told is that this service will be pushed to the districts,” Ryan said. “My first concern is that small districts won’t get these services. My second is that we don’t have the capacity in the state to serve these students.”
At a meeting of the Elementary and Secondary Education council last week, parents of visually impaired students pleaded with the council for the services to be continued at the Sherlock Center.
“You thought it was OK to put these services out to bid,” parent Sarah Schaefer, told the council. “You are depriving families of life-saving services. Please right this wrong. These are valued members of our society.”
Paul Troxell, father of two children who are visually impaired, said that the program was “written into state law” in 2006 and funded in the state budget. However, he said in 2014 the General Assembly’s support declined, leaving the Sherlock Center to rely on fees charged to school districts resulting in a deficit. “We cannot privatize this entity,” Troxell said. “This is supposed to be a public entity.”
The Rhode Island State Vision Education Services Program, Amy Grattan, said that the teachers were given layoff notices, “as a precaution, and to comply with standard practice within school districts.” Teachers are required to be notified of layoffs before March 1.
President of the American Federation of Teachers, Rhode Island (AFT), Frank Flynn, said that 33 of Rhode’s Island’s 39 traditional public schools rely on the Sherlock Center to provide their visually impaired students services. Flynn also worries that the teachers, some of whom belong to the AFT, will be let go. “If Rhode Island College wants to use this money for something else that will put a strain on school districts,” Flynn said. “It’s a necessary service.”
Rhode Island State Senator Sam Bell (D-District 5), wants to help parents create a line item in the state budget for blind and visually impaired students. He said, “Look, both the Governor and the legislature have the power to fix this and that’s important, it’s not a done deal. It’s not a done decision. It’s important for the department of education to start seeing children as people and not as numbers.”