Governor Gina Raimondo was at Cranston East last week and Johnston High School this week, to discuss her proposed free college initiative for college students, beginning with the high school graduating classes of 2017, which would offer them assistance in getting either two years free tuition and fees at the Community College of Rhode Island or their junior and senior years of college tuition at the University of Rhode Island or Rhode Island College for free. The proposal is the latest in a steady stream of initiatives designed to help Rhode Island students pursue their college educations, if so desired, and is designed to ease the financial burden in doing so. It does not allow students to utilize both portions of the program, that is, they cannot attend CCRI for two years and then transfer to RIC or URI for the final two years. It is designed to be a one-scholarship-per-student-only, program.
The proposal needs to be approved by the General Assembly.
Raimondo visited Cranston High School East last year to talk with students about Prepare RI, which allows them to take dual-enrollment and concurrent enrollment classes for free, through the Community College of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College or the University of Rhode Island. At the time, she also spoke about the Rhode Island's Promise scholarship program, which closes the gap between what students received in financial aid packages and what is left for them to contribute on their own; often a roadblock for students wishing to finish their college educations. Raimondo's new college tuition proposal is part of the Rhode Island Promise scholarship program. Scholarships differ from loans, in that they do not need to be repaid, which would help to remove the weight of college loan debt from students' shoulders upon graduating from college.
Raimondo has also frequently stated that she hopes more students will make their lives in Rhode Island as well, contributing their talents and skills to the workforce here in the state, and raising their children here.
For the first time, sophomore public high school students having the opportunity to take the PSAT in school for free and public junior high school students have the opportunity to take the SAT in school for free.
Kerri Kelleher is the parent of a high school student who does not attend Cranston East; she expressed her opinions and concerns in her role as the president and founder of the parent advocacy group, Benefiting All Students in Cranston Schools, or BASICS, after hearing about the event that took place.
"Over the last seven years, we have repeatedly spoken out against children being used as pieces in the political game. When budget cuts need to be made, often extra-curricular activities, sports or music are the first to the chopping block, and not because that's what is necessary, but because that is what will rally parents behind the school budget; program cuts, not cuts to other line items," she said. "While it's great to see any elected official come to our schools to visit, that wasn't what this visit was about. This visit was about the governor coming to our public high school, during the school day, to lobby for her own agenda and budget. By her own press release, this was a rally, and political rallies simply have no place in the school day."
Kelleher also weighed in as a Cranston Public Schools parent, as she has a younger student in Cranston as well, stating that she was frustrated that Cranston was chosen, given that it is the hometown of her former gubernatorial opponent, and potential future opponent, Mayor Allan Fung. She additionally questioned the choice of Cranston High School East instead of Cranston High School West for the rally.
"I have to wonder if she chose Cranston East, instead of West, because she perceives those students to be lower income, making the idea of 'free college' that much more enticing. I take offense to her calling this program the 'ticket to the middle class,'" she said. "Does this mean the East students are all currently considered lower class? What about our kids heading to the military or into a vocational school or career? This certainly isn't helping our kids strive to be their best, when their aim is to be in the middle."
Superintendent of Schools, Jeannine Nota-Masse said in an interview that the district has always welcomed, and continues to welcome, honored guests who wish to visit the schools.
"The governor's office contacted the district to visit our high school to discuss the college tuition plan. We respect the office of the governor and accommodated her request to discuss this educational initiative," Superintendent Nota-Masse said. "She, like other elected officials, have met with students during the school day in years past, and in schools throughout the state. We often have guest speakers, such as community members, athletes, etc., who visit our schools to meet with children during the day."
Domenic Fusco, parent of two Cranston East students, one who will graduate in June, and one freshman, was at the event in a dual role, both as a parent and as a Cranston Ward Three School Committee member.
"I got the invitation to attend at the last minute," said Fusco. "I wanted to be there both as a parent and as a school committee representative, in the hopes of getting some details and some information about this proposal. I had a lot of questions. I wondered where the funding was coming from and I was looking for those types of details, knowing that it can't just be that we're able to pay for everyone's college tuition for two years."
Although Fusco attended the event looking for those types of answers, he left still unsure about how the proposal will be paid for, but he's continuing to pursue the answers he needs, and he stands behind his promise to keep the best interest of Cranston students in mind.
"If the funding of this proposal takes anything away from our Cranston students, anything away from K-12 funding, I will fight this to the very end."