Dan McGowan

Everything you need to know about Gov. Raimondo's universal pre-K plan

PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo made her pitch to offer universal pre-school to children throughout the state to her most receptive audience yet Wednesday: several groups of four-year-olds at Nathanael Greene Elementary School in Pawtucket.

The Democrat, who just started her second term, spent the morning reading to and talking with children who are already enrolled in pre-K before telling educators, union leaders and other stakeholders that an expansion would be a worthwhile investment in the future.

So how much will universal pre-K cost and what does it mean for Rhode Island families? Let’s take a closer look.

Q: Is the governor making pre-K mandatory for all four-year-olds?
A: No, but she is planning to strongly encourage it. There are roughly 10,000 four-year-olds in Rhode Island in any given year, and state officials believe there are currently 1,080 high-quality, state-funded pre-K slots in the state (with a huge waiting list). The governor’s stated goal is to enroll 7,000 students in pre-K by the time she leaves office, which would equal about 70% of the state’s four-year-olds.

Q: Wait, are you saying only 10% of four-year-olds are currently in pre-K?
A: Not exactly. There are thousands of students enrolled in private or publicly-funded half-day pre-K programs, but the governor’s idea is to expand the number of high-quality slots from 1,080 to around 7,000. "High-quality" sounds subjective, but there are a few key components that are needed to qualify: one is children must attend school for at least six hours each day. Another is teachers must have earned a bachelor’s degree and have specialized training for early childhood education.

Q: Six hours a day seems like a lot.
A: It is, especially when you consider it wasn’t so long ago that full-day kindergarten wasn’t required in every community in Rhode Island. But full-day pre-K has become a national trend, in part because the federally-funded Head Start program committed in 2016 to requiring most of its pre-K programs to operate for at least 1,020 hours a year by Aug. 1, 2019. (It’s worth noting that the requirement was rolled back last year.)

Q: So how much is universal pre-K going to cost?
A: This depends on a lot of factors, but the rough estimate from the governor’s office is that it will cost nearly $50 million a year if and when 70% of four-year-olds are enrolled in publicly-funded pre-K programs. The state currently spends about $7 million a year on pre-K, and the governor’s budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year will include an additional $10 million. Kevin Gallagher, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, said implementation will likely require an additional $10 million in the budget in each of the next four years, which brings the program to around $47 million. The state will likely seek to secure more federal funding and partner with cities and towns to lower the state investment, but those details are murky.

Q: But what is it going to cost me?
A: That’s tough to say. It’s true that nothing funded by taxpayers is actually free, but the governor is pitching universal pre-K as an extension of the current public K-12 system. There are plenty of people who view that current system as cost-free because they aren’t paying tuition for a public education. The idea of universal pre-K is that you won’t pay tuition there either. Of course, just like with the current K-12 system, there’s no guarantee that taxes or fees won’t increase over time to help cover the cost of pre-K.

Q: Is universal pre-K really the best way to improve schools?
A: From an anecdotal perspective, try to find a kindergarten teacher who doesn’t see huge developmental differences in children who show up with no previous schooling and the ones who attended pre-K. The concept of universal pre-K is still very new, but there is already ample research that suggests high-quality early childhood programming can be beneficial to children. At the same time, however, some studies question whether pre-K actually helps students make long-term gains in English and math. One study of eight state-funded pre-K programs released last year by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) found “all produced large short-term effects on the simplest, easiest-to-acquire skills. But, on average, programs had much more modest effects on math and, especially, language acquisition. For some states estimated language effects were near zero.”

Q: You said universal pre-K is new. Where else is it happening?
A: This has become a trendy proposal by governors and mayors across the country in recent years; in fact, former Providence Mayor Angel Taveras made universal pre-K his signature policy goal during his unsuccessful run for governor in 2014. (He lost to Raimondo.)  Only a handful of states – Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma – offer statewide universal pre-K, but New York City, Chicago and Washington, D.C., are all doing this at the local level. (Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has also proposed universal pre-K in the capital city.) Folks in the governor’s office are pointing to New York City as the model Rhode Island wants to follow, although leaders in the Big Apple moved far quicker than Raimondo is suggesting.

Q; Doesn’t Rhode Island already have good pre-K programming?
A: Yes. NIEER found Rhode Island was one of only three states – along with Alabama and Michigan – that met all 10 of its quality standards, which includes full-day programming and class sizes of no more than 20 children. But with a participation rate of only 9% during the 2016-17 school year, NEEIR said the state needs to enroll more children.

Q: What challenges will the state face in implementing universal pre-K?
A: Assuming state lawmakers agree with the concept of expanding pre-K and commit to funding it — Save the Children is already out with a TV commercial pushing for passage — there are still a few barriers. Start with facilities. There isn’t enough room in elementary schools across the state to handle 7,000 four-year-olds, but the governor’s office maintains classrooms will not need to be limited to existing schools. (This will be good news to other daycare providers.) The state believes it will need about 350 classrooms – 20 kids per class – to get to 7,000 students, but there are only around 60 classrooms providing high-quality pre-K now. Then there’s program development. Of the pre-K providers not currently considered high-quality, how much support will they need to expand? There’s also a workforce question. The state is planning to conduct a study to determine how many pre-K teachers and teaching assistants will be needed in the coming years to ensure all families that want pre-K will have access to it.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan


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