State spending plan expands pre-K, but limits free college tuition to just CCRI
PROVIDENCE — Gov. Gina Raimondo got at least half of what she wanted in Friday’s $9.9-billion state budget, from expanding pre-kindergarten classes to setting aside more money for English language learners.
But her signature initiative — expanding free college tuition to Rhode Island College and opening the scholarship to older adults at the Community College of Rhode Island — was left on the table, a victim of what House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello called a “particularly difficult budget.”
Free college tuition has become a popular program, with nearly 20 states offering some version of it. And it has generated widespread support from more than half of the 23 Democratic contenders running for president, who are reacting to what they say is a crisis in student debt.
Rhode Island Promise currently offers two years of free college tuition at CCRI to recent high school graduates who are enrolled full time. Raimondo wanted to expand the program to older students, who make up a major portion of the college’s student body. She also wanted to offer the scholarship to students in their junior and senior years at RIC, which would make it easier for students to finish college in four years.
RIC on Monday expressed its disappointment in the failure to expand free tuition.
“The college is assessing the stark realities and the significant fiscal impact that the presented 2020 budget poses to the college’s ability to serve students and fulfill our mission,” RIC said in a statement Monday. Asked to expand on what those stark realities are, RIC declined to elaborate.
House Finance also approved a separate board of trustees for the University of Rhode Island, a controversial proposal that drew the ire of the Council on Post-Secondary Education, which saw the move as a power grab that could pit URI against Rhode Island’s other two public colleges.
Raimondo was not a fan of giving a 17-member board of trustees authority over everything from spending to collective bargaining.
Under the 2020 budget, the governor appoints the original trustees, but after their staggered terms expire, he or she would have the power only to appoint nine of the members, three of whom must be Rhode Island residents. The trustees would select the remaining eight members.
URI President David M. Dooley fought hard for this change, arguing that an institution with global reach and major research status needs a board that would be nimble and responsive to a rapidly changing higher education landscape. But members of the existing higher education council were dismayed that Dooley pushed this through the legislature without any input from the council, which found out about it two weeks ago.
Raimondo was in Philadelphia on Monday and could not be reached for comment. But in a statement last week, she alluded to her displeasure with the plan, saying it should not be “rushed through late in the session.”
Facing legislation that would expand the Department of Education’s role in school districts, state Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green asked for $1.9 million for 20 additional staff. House Finance gave her four new positions to improve student literacy, support STEM programs and strengthen school leadership and school improvement efforts.
“We are very encouraged by the General Assembly’s continuing commitment to education,” she wrote. “We are especially pleased that the budget expands pre-K and fully funds K-12 education and support for multi-lingual learners … Although this doesn’t fulfill our original request, we consider this positive progress and look forward to working with leadership to do even more in the future.”
Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, said the Department of Education doesn’t have the money or the staff to do a major intervention in a struggling district like Providence. Johns Hopkins University is poised to release its findings following a just-completed analysis into why the district hasn’t made more progress.