They say budgets are a reflection of priorities, and Governor Dan McKee’s $13.7 billion proposal unveiled Thursday appears to lay the groundwork for one of the most ambitious goals he has set since winning a full four-year term in November: “Reach Massachusetts education levels by 2030.”
McKee’s tax-and-spend plan includes more than $70 million in additional funding for K-12 and higher education, while tweaking the state funding formula to help districts in need, investing in pre-kindergarten seats, and bolstering a program designed to enroll more adults in college.
What’s still unclear is what McKee means exactly when he says he wants to reach the education levels of our neighbors to the north. Test scores? Graduation rates? Absenteeism levels?
McKee has said he wants to spend the next 100 days crafting a plan. Luckily, Rhode Island Kids Count and the United Way aren’t waiting for anyone, and the two organizations hosted a discussion Thursday on the racial and ethnic disparities in education in the state that could help drive the discussion over the next decade.
Here are four important metrics that McKee might want to consider as he builds his plan.
Education experts define chronic absenteeism as missing 10 percent or more of the school year — when a student isn’t in class for at least 18 days of school. In Rhode Island, 28 percent of students were considered chronically absent during the 2020-2021 school year, but the numbers are much higher among Black (36 percent) and Latino students (42 percent). By comparison, about 17.7 percent of Massachusetts students were considered chronically absent during the same school year.
It would be easy to blame COVID-19 for the high rates, but consider this: In the current school year, Barrington High School is the only public school in all of Rhode Island where fewer than 10 percent of students are on track to be labeled chronically absent, according to a daily tracker published by the Rhode Island Department of Education. Student (and teacher) absenteeism was a major problem for the state before the virus, and it appears to have continued even after the disruption caused by the pandemic.
Is there a clear solution? Not exactly. For older students, Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green has said she wants to find ways to help them earn credits outside classroom hours. But if a student is absent 18 days a year from kindergarten through the ninth grade, that means they will miss a full year of school by the time they sit down to take their PSAT in the 10th grade.
Third-grade reading and math
A student who took the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System exam for the first time when they were in the third grade during the 2021-2022 school year will be a junior in high school by 2030 — the final year in office for McKee if he’s reelected in 2026. That’s also the year McKee wants to match or surpass Massachusetts in educational outcomes.
How did those students do in their first crack at the test? In English Language Arts, 37 percent of Rhode Island third graders met or exceeded expectations, and 35 percent of students were considered proficient in math. In Massachusetts, 44 percent of third graders met or exceeded expectations in English, and 41 percent were proficient in math.
It’s going to be incredibly difficult to match Massachusetts in test scores, but if Rhode Island is going to reduce the gap between the two states, it has to dramatically improve results among Black and Latino students. The good news is Rhode Island is laying the groundwork by expanding public pre-kindergarten programming and offering more after-school supports.
Rhode Island and Massachusetts aren’t that far apart when it comes to high school graduation rates, so it’s reasonable to set a goal of jumping from 84 percent for the class of 2021 to Massachusetts’ 89.8 percent for the same class by 2030. Then again, there’s a good chance that Massachusetts could have a graduation rate that is approaching 95 percent by that year.
Once again, Rhode Island is going to have to tackle achievement gaps between its white and minority students. For the class of 2021, Black and Latino students were more than twice as likely as white students to drop out prior to graduation.
Post-high school attainment
Current projections suggest that 72 percent of all jobs in Rhode Island will require a postsecondary credential (think certificates or degrees), and but only about 53 percent of Rhode Islanders currently have that kind of credential, according to the Indiana-based Lumina Foundation. In Massachusetts, 61.6 percent have earned at least a certificate above the high school level, and the state has a goal of reaching 70 percent by 2030.
This is a major focus area for Rhode Island Postsecondary Commissioner Shannon Gilkey, who has stressed that getting closer to 70 percent means that more current students will need to earn certificates or degrees, but just as important, more working-age adults are going to need to return to school or a training program.
State leaders have made a significant commitment in recent years to help Rhode Islanders with some college credits but no degree go back to school, and McKee’s proposed budget includes $8 million to bolster the R.I. Reconnect program that encourages adults to return to school.