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Governor Gina Raimondo high-fives youngsters at Nathanael Greene Elementary School in Pawtucket, before unveiling her Universal Pre-K program with Mark Shriver, President of Save the Children Action Network, at the school Wednesday.

PAWTUCKET — Less than 24 hours after stating her intention to bring universal pre-school to Rhode Island, Gov. Gina M. Raimondo on Wednesday unveiled the specifics behind her proposal, but not before touring pre-school classrooms at Nathanael Greene Elementary School to tout the successes that are possible through early education.

Raimondo during her State of the State address on Tuesday night pledged to bring universal pre-school to the Ocean State, saying “By the time I leave office, there will be a pre-K seat for every four-year-old whose parents want it. The budget I’ll submit later this week sets us on a path to make that happen.”

Raimondo on Wednesday morning told an assembled crowd of media, school personnel and elected officials that universal pre-school was something “we have to get done this year.”

Saying that planning for the future – with a focus on investments in education, infrastructure, schools, and job training – is all about ensuring Rhode Island’s economy is “strong and resilient,” the governor said the state was “governing for the long haul.”

“The single best thing we can do to set Rhode Island up for success is to invest in education and job training across the spectrum,” Raimondo said, noting that investments include higher education and grades from kindergarten through high school. “But if you don’t start at the beginning, you’re not going to be as successful.”

In Raimondo’s budget, which will be presented today, there includes a $10 million investment to enable the state to make a 50 percent increase in the first year in the number of public pre-school spots. These spots, Raimondo said, have to be “high quality” and she said she “can’t imagine anything more important we can do.”

The intent is to phase in universal pre-school over the remainder of Raimondo’s four-year term. Universal pre-school classes would be held in a combination of public schools and other facilities, as the governor noted Rhode Island has high-quality early childhood programs and the “mixed-delivery system” could entail public classrooms, Head Start centers, and early childhood centers.

In addition to new classrooms, the $10 million includes investments in existing classrooms, some of which currently serve half-day pre-school. The goal is to see a 50 percent increase in the number of seats, and there are 1,080 seats that meet the state’s “quality benchmarks.” The state wants at least 540 more over the next year, through a combination of 10 new classrooms in the fall plus investments in existing facilities.

There is not expected to be more than 20 children in a single new classroom.

Raimondo said she envisioned universal pre-school being rolled out similar to all-day kindergarten, which started fully state funded and is now integrated into the funding formula.

The budget is a “fully-balanced budget with no broad-based tax increases,” Raimondo said, adding “there’s money in the budget for this. It’s a matter of priorities … I think it’s fully sustainable and we can’t afford to not do it.”

“Investments in pre-K mean kids do better in school, graduate high school at a higher rate, get good jobs, and commit fewer crimes,” Raimondo said. “I’d much rather put a dollar into public pre-K than remedial education or truancy programs or the ACI down the road.”

In the governor’s first four-year term, the state tripled the number of public pre-K classes and expanded all-day kindergarten to every district in the state, “giving thousands of our littlest learners the right start in life. It’s time to do more,” she said during Tuesday’s State of the State address. “I pledge to be the Governor who brings universal public pre-K to Rhode Island.”

Save the Children Action Network CEO Mark Shriver said before Wednesday, he’d never heard a governor speak as “forcefully and powerfully about early childhood education.”

“This is a critical issue, a social justice issue, a return on investment issue. Studies done by leading economists show for high-quality investments in early childhood education, the return is in the neighborhood of $9 for every dollar invested,” Shriver said.

Elizabeth Burke Bryant, the executive director of Rhode Island Kids Count, said touring Greene Elementary on Wednesday and seeing the children engaged in learning made it clear why universal pre-school was important.

“It makes my day to be able to go into schools like this … and see little ones learning every second,” she said. “It’s the best possible way to spend your day. We’re so excited about this proposal, it’s such a smart thing to do. It’s a really, really smart investment. The return on investment pays for these kinds of investments over time and makes children ready.”

Greene Elementary pre-school teacher Lynn Karalis said she watches every day as four-year-olds become independent, interested, and curious as they learn to complete puzzles and write their names, among other objectives.

“They love it. The families love it … The fact that every four-year-old is going to have that opportunity is just so wonderful,” Karalis said. “My class is so ready for kindergarten already and the year’s not even half-way over. I’m so thankful to think every four-year-old will be in a classroom getting ready to be successful in school and in their life.”

Follow Jonathan Bissonnette on Twitter @J_Bissonnette

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