Pell pitches free tuition at CCRI in ed package

Clay Pell smiles during his announcement for governor of Rhode Island in January 2014. (photo: Stephan Savoia/AP)

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The grandson of the late U.S. senator whose landmark legislation opened the door for millions of low-income Americans to attend college is proposing Rhode Island overhaul the way its students pay for higher education.

Clay Pell, a Democratic candidate for governor, unveiled a plan Wednesday that would provide up to two years of free tuition for qualifying students at the Community College of Rhode Island, a proposal he says could put thousands of young Rhode Island residents on track to earn a college degree.

Pell’s free tuition proposal was part of a wide-ranging education plan that would also stabilize tuition rates at the state’s public colleges, create an education cabinet that would steer school policy across the state, expand access to early childhood learning programs and help cities and towns pay to repair their aging school buildings. All told, Pell said his plan will cost the state $28.8 million in his first budget.

“We will fund this because it is a priority,” Pell said during a morning press conference at Pierce Memorial Field in East Providence. “I believe that education is absolutely essential to growing the economy in our state. What we need is leadership.”

Pell, who has already been endorsed by the Rhode Island chapter of the National Education Association teachers’ union, included very little about the use of standardized testing or teacher evaluations in his 20-page proposal, except to say that he believes there is “too much focus” on testing in schools today. He has previously said he does not support tying a high school diploma to performance on a statewide test.

During his press conference, Pell told reporters he does support holding teachers accountable, but did not specifically say how he planned to implement evaluation educators. He stopped short of saying he would not retain Education Commissioner Deborah Gist if he’s elected, but said the state has spent too much time focusing on standardized testing and “developing a level of acrimony which has not moved us in the right direction.” Gist’s contract expires next June.

The plan also includes a $300,000 pilot program that will create a curriculum for students to learn another language – Pell is a former deputy assistant secretary for international and foreign language education at the U.S. Department of Education – with the goal of making Rhode Island the first state in the country the provide every public college student with the “opportunity to gain international education experience as part of their higher education coursework.”

But Pell’s boldest plan – making college more affordable for students – can be traced back to his family.

Pell’s grandfather, the late Sen. Claiborne Pell, was the driving force behind the grant program that helps nearly 10 million low-income Americans pay for higher education each year. The Pell Grant program distributed $33.4 billion to 9.7 million students during the 2011-12 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In addition to providing students multiple pathways to earn a high school diploma and enter college or the workforce, Pell wants to establish a “Hope Scholars Program” that will provide a two-year stabilization on college tuition – and every two years thereafter – to help students budget for college.

The average public or private college graduate in Rhode Island leaves college with $31,156 in debt, according to the nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success. That’s the highest average debt in New England and the sixth-highest in the country.

Pell’s free tuition proposal at CCRI will be contingent upon a student enrolling in a degree program, maintaining a 2.5 grade point average and a full-time course load. It is unclear how Pell’s plan will affect the thousands of student who enter the community college each year that are forced to take remedial courses

For the current school year, 69% of first-time CCRI students had to take at least one remedial course, according to Richard Coren, a spokesman for the college.

Pell’s plan would also double the amount of state grants for higher education to $8 million beginning with his first budget while increasing the per student cap on grant awards. Pell said he also wants to work with the Rhode Island Student Loan Authority to improve loan forgiveness programs to help more students earn college degrees.

The 32-year-old Pell, who has never held public office, is challenging General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras in the Democratic primary for governor. On the Republican side, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung is taking on businessman Ken Block.

Incumbent Gov. Lincoln Chafee is not seeking re-election.

The primary is Sept. 9.

Dan McGowan ( ) covers politics and the city of Providence for Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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