Angel Taveras proposes universal pre-K for RI

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence Mayor Angel Taveras on Tuesday unveiled a sweeping proposal to offer universal pre-kindergarten across Rhode Island, a plan that would require a massive expansion of state-funded early childhood education programs.

Taveras, a first-term Democrat who has already declared his candidacy for governor next year, said he hopes to enroll 76% of Rhode Island children in pre-K by 2022. Under his plan, the state would allocate approximately $24.6 million annually to funding pre-K by the end of his first term, a figure that would cover about half of the slots needed to reach his goal.

“States that do a good job educating children are also among the states that have the strongest economies in our nation,” Taveras said in a statement. “Universal pre-kindergarten will significantly strengthen our education system, which will help to build a stronger, more resilient Rhode Island economy.”

Calling his plan “Ready Rhode Island,” Taveras was scheduled to release a nine-page policy outline Tuesday morning at the Pawtucket YMCA on Roosevelt Avenue.

All told, the state’s pre-K program – which does not include Head Start – served 144 children during the 2012-13 school year, according to Rhode Island Kids Count, a leading child advocacy organization. If elected governor, Taveras pledged to provide 2,650 pre-K slots by the end of his first term in office.

Taveras’s proposal would accelerate a strategy that originally appeared in the 2010 legislation that created the state’s education funding formula. That plan called for a 10-year phase-in of state-funded pre-K that sought to reach 1,000 students by 2020.

As part of his proposal, Taveras also called for all communities to offer full-day kindergarten, promising to fully fund a 2012 state law that provides incentives to cities and towns that deliver all-day kindergarten programs. Last year 21 school districts offered full-day kindergarten, according to Kids Count.

Taveras, who attended Head Start as a child and graduated from Harvard and Georgetown Law School, said his plan would be paid for using a mix of federal Title 1 funds and private foundation dollars as well as significant cuts in personnel overtime at state hospitals and prisons.

“This proposal is a building block for economic development,” Taveras wrote in the report. “In fact, research has shown that pre-kindergarten graduates are more likely to attend college, attain a full-time job, and have health insurance later in life.”

Taveras is currently the only Democrat who has formally announced his campaign for governor next year, but he is expected to face a primary challenge from state Treasurer Gina Raimondo. Clay Pell, the grandson of the late U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, is also expected to enter the race. Incumbent Gov. Lincoln Chafee is not seeking re-election.

On the Republican side, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and businessman Ken Block are set to square off in a primary. Both men were in Arizona last week for a candidate training session hosted by the Republican Governors Association.

A WPRI 12/Providence Journal poll released last week showed Taveras as the most popular politician in the state, with 57% of voters saying he is doing an excellent or good job as mayor of the capital city. Raimondo posted a 51% approval rating.

It is no surprise Taveras focused on education in his first in-depth policy rollout.

Although he has spent much of his first term in office attempting a slash a $110 million structural deficit, Taveras has made early childhood education one of his top priorities since entering City Hall. Earlier this year, Providence won the $5 million Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge for its plan to improve the vocabulary of low-income children.

Taveras’s proposal comes amid a renewed push nationally to increase access to pre-school. In his State of the Union address in February, President Obama proposed a federal-state partnership to provide all children living poverty access to pre-K.

In New York City, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio proposed universal pre-K for all four-year-olds in the nation’s largest city. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called for full-day pre-K in all of that state’s struggling school districts.

In all, 40 states offered some form of state-funded pre-school during the 2011-12 school year, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

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

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