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Community members react to McKee’s State of the State Address

Concerns over education, economy, impactfulness of budget increases remain

<p>While Rhodes Island law stipulates that people arrested on a probation violation charge may be held for up to 10 days, activists say detention is often longer in practice.</p>

While Rhodes Island law stipulates that people arrested on a probation violation charge may be held for up to 10 days, activists say detention is often longer in practice.

In Gov. Dan McKee’s annual State of the State Address last month, one goal stood out: His administration will seek to bring Rhode Island up to the level of Massachusetts student achievement by 2030, echoing a target set last year.

According to McKee’s Jan. 16 speech, the administration will focus on improving three areas: Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System scores, student attendance and Free Application for Federal Student Aid completion. As part of the effort, the state budget will propose a $15 million allocation for math and English Language Arts coaching for students as well as professional development for teachers, McKee said.

The Herald spoke with Rhode Island community members about the goals voiced by McKee.

Dana DeMaire, site coordinator for Hope High School with the Providence After School Alliance, said greater investment in FAFSA is critical for high school students. The Providence Public School District currently hosts one FAFSA night for the entire district.


Increased investment in teachers is also crucial to prevent high turnover rates, according to Lisa Hildebrand, executive director of the Rhode Island Association for the Education of Young Children. Hildebrand’s organization is a nonprofit that supports early childhood educators through advocacy, professional development and direct work with the state government.

The organization meets with the governor’s office each year to work on the state budget. This year, the number one priority was what Hildebrand calls a “staffing crisis.” Just last year, teacher turnover hit new highs across several states. According to Hildebrand, low wages lead to turnover, which in turn leads to closed classrooms and long waitlists for services like infant and toddler care.

“The waiting lists in some programs are years long, and that impacts that parent being able to go back into the workforce,” Hildebrand said. “So it’s an economic issue.”

Hope High School, a local public school, has also faced difficulties in retaining staff, according to DeMarie. Even within the administration, turnover is high, which can present problems when long-term projects are abandoned, she said.

“Last year we had an administrator who was navigating after-school tutoring for our youth,” DeMaire said. The school no longer offers tutoring after the administrator left, she recalled.

Early Intervention access

The administration will allocate $3.8 million towards Early Intervention, the full amount that the Rhode Island Office of the Health Insurance Commissioner recommended. Rhode Island’s Early Intervention Program offers a special home-based program of educational support and services for infants and toddlers experiencing a developmental delay or disability. 

According to Hildrebrand, the intervention program hosted a long waitlist during the pandemic — and matters haven’t improved much since. As of April 2022, around 400 children were placed on the list. Short staffing and low wages have been linked to the limited availability of Early Intervention, the Globe reported.

Different from other childcare services, Early Intervention is covered by private insurance or Medicaid, so providers are directly reimbursed, according to Hildebrand. In December, Blue Cross increased reimbursement rates for Early Intervention providers, writing that “our hope is that by increasing reimbursement rates sooner than later, we will help our provider and community partners to reduce wait times and increase staffing levels so that Rhode Island’s most vulnerable residents receive the care they need.”

However, concerns remain regarding the long-term efficacy of these solutions: Hildebrand said the state will need continued federal support through the Child Care Development Block Grant. This will be especially important given that President Joe Biden’s original Build Back Better plan — which Hildebrand said would have “flooded the system with additional funds to be able to do everything that we needed to do” — didn’t pass.


Although the McKee administration publicly stated their commitment to improved education last year, DeMaire said she hasn’t seen “a huge shift” in the quality of education yet. 

Robert Hackey, adjunct lecturer in international and public affairs, said that identifying “a more comprehensive approach to reforming education” is essential to meet McKee’s goal of the Ocean State being “comparable” to Massachusetts.

“There’s a lot more here than just some targeted investments,” he said.

Hildebrand stated that the way to increase state investment in child care is by increasing state revenue. She said the Association for the Education of Young Children is advocating for a tax on the highest earners in the state that could be earmarked for the childcare system.

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The issue of early education is so critical, Hildebrand said, because it doesn’t just affect early childhood: the learning and developmental skills built in school help youth to become “fully functioning young children, and then young adults, and then adults.” 

Research has demonstrated that money invested into early childhood programs leads to direct economic gains for a variety of reasons, such as increased income for mothers able to return to the workforce earlier. Some research has suggested that every dollar invested in early childhood programs can yield a return on investment of between $4 and $16.

State of the State promises continued budget discipline

The State of the State Address also focused on other pressing issues affecting Rhode Islanders, such as the cost of living and housing. McKee promised to “raise per capita income by a minimum of $20,000 by the year 2030.” He also cited his “over a quarter-billion-dollar investment in housing in 2022” as evidence of his commitment to creating more affordable housing.

Rhode Island has had one of the lowest housing production rates in the United States for decades, a fact McKee said he intends to address. He said his new budget will call for the inclusion of a $100 million housing production bond on the ballot, which would be the largest of its kind in state history.

Even though “100 million dollars is a lot of money, I don’t think it’s enough to really make a significant dent in the affordable housing issue,” Hackey said.

McKee also promised to keep the state budget in check —  an issue in years past.

“Our budget will make key investments in education, small businesses and Rhode Island’s health care system without raising any broad-based taxes,” McKee said.

Hackey said the parameters set by the McKee administration  — committing to a balanced budget but also keeping taxes stable — could be difficult to achieve simultaneously. In 2021, the state benefited from over a billion dollars in American Rescue Plan Act funding, but only around $90 million of that aid money remains. 

McKee cited measures intended to boost state revenue and improve Rhode Island’s business environment — Rhode Island recently ranked as the worst state to start a business in by WalletHub, a drop from being ranked the fifth worst in 2023. 

But Hackey said some of these measures, such as reducing the corporate minimum tax from $400 to $350 or eliminating some filing fees, are only a small part of the larger solution

The state’s budget for transportation was also a point of concern from Hackey. He said the ongoing disruptions to route I-195 will present short-term budgeting problems due to the cost of repairs, and the small increases in money allocated to RIPTA are nowhere near enough to address their deficit.

Hackey said that he understands the state’s desire to remain within the budget, but that there are more effective ways to keep spending reasonable while making impactful change.

“I think the state is very reasonable in saying, ‘Look, we have to live within our means,’” he said. “For me, I would rather see us target a few areas and really go all-in as opposed to a more scattershot approach.”

Yael Sarig

Yael is a senior staff writer covering city and state politics. She is junior, and hails from the Bay Area.

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