In a pivot from talking purely about Rhode Island’s economy, as was her primary focus during the run-up to the 2018 election, and avoiding the concept of legalized recreational marijuana entirely, Governor Gina Raimondo switched gears and turned the spotlight onto improving the state’s educational standing.
“When it comes to our future, nothing is more important than our children,” Raimondo said in her State of the State Address from the House chambers of the Rhode Island State House on Tuesday evening, touting “record investments” in K-12 education, increasing technical education opportunities by “nearly 60 percent” and increasing the number of students taking AP courses by 40 percent.
However, Raimondo called the recent revealing of Rhode Island’s standardized test scores under the new RICAS exam – an exam comparable to Massachusetts’ MCAS – as “just not acceptable.”
“We’ve lagged behind our neighbors for far too long,” she said. “Let’s resolve to do whatever it takes to make Rhode Island’s schools competitive with our neighbors and give every single one of our children a shot at a bright future – no matter their background or their zip code.”
Raimondo admits straight away that improving the educational outlook “won’t be easy,” but said that the state needs to set “an ambitious plan and stick to it despite the inevitable challenges and controversies that will come our way.” She said Massachusetts has been successful due to sticking with the same strategies for 25 years.
“In Rhode Island, we’ve had a pattern of not sticking with an approach long enough to generate results,” Raimondo said before announcing she is allocating an additional $30 million to “school funding,” which will make it “the single biggest increase of any part of the state budget.”
Among the potential controversies Raimondo mentioned regarding educational change may be how the state institutes its curricula, which Raimondo said should more match “how they do it in Massachusetts.” There has already been a bill introduced by Rep. Joseph McNamara that would mandate the use of curricula that aligns with Common Core.
Another proposition was Raimondo’s call for continued investment into Pre-K education.
“Investments in Pre-K can save us money in the long-run because more Rhode Islanders will enjoy the economic benefits of a fulfilling life with a good job,” she said. “In my first term, we tripled the number of public Pre-K classes and expanded all-day kindergarten to every district in the state, giving thousands of our littlest learners the right start in life. It’s time to do more.”
Raimondo then pledged to become “the Governor who brings universal public Pre-K to Rhode Island.”
“By the time I leave office, there will be a Pre-K seat for every four-year-old whose parents want it,” she said. “The budget I’ll submit later this week sets us on a path to make that happen. Let’s get this done.”
Despite the initial focus on education, her speech came full circle back to economic advancement in the state – the two of which are integrally intertwined, she inferred.
“There is nothing more important to the future of Rhode Island – to the economic security of our friends and our family – than making sure that everybody has the credential or degree they need to get a good job in today’s economy,” she said, reporting that 99 percent of the jobs created since the end of the recession “have gone to people with a certificate or degree beyond high school.”
As such, Raimondo touted the importance of job training programs in the state and college preparatory programs like Rhode Island Promise – the state-subsidized free college tuition program to full-time students at CCRI who are fresh out of high school. She said she is seeking through budgetary action to expand this opportunity.
Further, Raimondo officially proposed for the first time an expansion of the Rhode Island Promise program to include free tuition for the final two years of attendance at Rhode Island College, with a goal of expanding it even further – to the University of Rhode Island – before her final term concludes.
“Too many students start at RIC, but can’t finish because they can’t juggle a full course load and two or three jobs to cover tuition. The number one reason students drop out is cost,” Raimondo said. “Most RIC graduates stay in Rhode Island. They’re our teachers, our nurses, our IT technicians that keep our economy going.”
“This small but smart investment – a few million dollars in a $10 billion budget – will change lives, strengthen our economy and help us fulfill our obligation to ensure that every Rhode Islander can get a good job,” she continued. “If we do this, Rhode Island College will arguably offer the most affordable four-year degree in America. Let’s lead the way.”
Continuing on the economy, Raimondo defended her administration against “cynicism” and said she was proud of the results of her approach to attracting new businesses to the state.
“Over the last four years, nearly 30 companies have moved here or expanded here because of our economic development initiatives,” she said. “Those companies are creating thousands of jobs that pay on average $65,000 a year.”
Transitioning from jobs to healthcare, Raimondo said that “a healthy economy also requires a healthy workforce.” She said that in her first term, the uninsured rate was cut nearly in half, so that now “nearly all Rhode Islanders have health insurance, and health insurance premiums on our exchange are some of the lowest in America.”
She said it was important to protect against attacks on the Affordable Care Act from the federal administration, and called for legislation to enact such protections in the state. Generating much applause Raimondo also called for the codification of women’s access to reproductive health care into state law.
Going forward, Raimondo said a focus on mental health was vital.
“This year, we will launch a new initiative to address mental health in our schools. We’re going to make sure that kids can have access to health care for their anxiety and depression just as they do for a broken arm or the flu,” she said, adding that she would introduce funding in the upcoming budget to provide educators with better training to support their students’ mental health needs.
“Today’s kids are struggling with mental health issues far more than we did,” she said. “And as a mom, I can see why. We didn’t grow up with the pace or pressure or technology our kids have today.”
Segueing into gun control, Raimondo re-emphasized her focus on banning “assault weapons” and high-capacity magazines, which she mentioned in her inaugural address on Jan. 1, in addition to other reforms.
“It’s time. We can’t sit back and deny a generation of Rhode Islanders their right to safe schools and safe communities,” she said. “Later this month, I will submit a comprehensive package of gun safety reforms that we know will save lives. Rhode Islanders overwhelmingly support stronger gun laws. Let’s pass these bills this year.”
Raimondo ended on a forward-thinking note.
“We can profoundly shape and strengthen the state we pass down to our kids,” she said. “The decisions we make, the actions we take, the tone we use, all have the potential to be lasting and impactful.”