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Rhode Island’s early learning crisis limits our state’s future

The Child Care is Essential Act would restore and provide $48 million in state funding and use $4 million in new federal funding to ensure that all families at or below Rhode Island’s median income level can afford child care.Christopher Jones/NYT

The pandemic has ended and so has supplemental funding that kept services to vulnerable kids and families operational over the past three years. Even before the pandemic, early care and education was in crisis. The cost of operating these programs far exceeds most families’ ability to pay for them, and it certainly exceeds any permanent state or federal funding allocation. Early child care workers’ wages remain low, which contributes to turnover and even higher costs for agencies like ours.

By failing to address the crisis head-on, we are limiting our future and the potential for our state. Nearly 32,000 Rhode Island children live below the federal poverty level. These children stand to benefit the most from investments in our early child care system.


The state has an opportunity now to act on several measures that would drastically improve the outlook for families. First, the Child Care is Essential Act would restore and provide $48 million in state funding and use $4 million in new federal funding to ensure that all families at or below the state’s median income level can afford child care, and it would make care more accessible by removing an antiquated child support enforcement requirement (H5193/S522).

Another measure would prevent the permanent closure of any Rhode Island Pre-K, Head Start, or Early Head Start classrooms (H6009/S463). It would restore and provide state funding for Head Start and Early Head Start programs statewide, while also sustaining the Pre-K program. It will also increase teaching staff wages to match similarly qualified K-12 teacher wages. One of the greatest challenges we face as an employer in the state is that we cannot compete when it comes to compensation. In conjunction with this, the RI Early Educator Investment Act would establish statewide compensation goals for early educators, fund a pilot program to increase compensation for skilled child care educators, and implement a tested strategy to recruit and retain child care educators by providing free child care for all child care educators (H5094/S492).


At Children’s Friend, the lack of investment in early education plays out like this: We have 18 empty classrooms and dust collecting on chairs stacked on tables. And yet we have waiting lists that are longer than several class rosters. We cannot get teachers in the door quickly enough. For the population we serve, this means children often go without quality early education. Permanent state investments are the only way we can move the needle toward addressing this problem. Moreover, the workforce that supports young children’s early learning and development is made up almost exclusively of women (and disproportionately women of color) and has among the lowest wages in the state. Often, our teachers are primary caregivers to their own children, and because of suppressed wages — due to lack of investment — they struggle to get ahead.

Beyond shoring up our early education programs, we need support for the interventions that can come before this point. At Children’s Friend, we operate several programs designed to meet families where they are, including First Connections. First Connections keeps at-risk new mothers and newborns connected to services that keep their child safe and support healthy development from day one. It has not seen a permanent rate increase in 22 years. A bill before the legislature prioritizes sustainability for a program that many clients describe as a lifeline (H5810/S207). There is also a measure on the table for a 10 percent rate increase to all home- and community-based services for vulnerable children (H5987/S782). These services are the primary way we catch issues that might qualify a family to receive support through Early Intervention — a program that is also in desperate need of investment and has a waitlist that continues to grow (H5983 /S523).


Intervention before children reach school age can make all the difference when it comes to breaking cycles of poverty, abuse, and neglect. I know because I have seen evidence of this transformation first-hand at Children’s Friend.

Take Charlie, for example. Charlie was referred to Children’s Friend through Early Intervention. He received the therapy and support he needed to address a speech delay. Today, Charlie is thriving in one of our Head Start classrooms. He’s heading to kindergarten next year, and I have no doubt he will be ready to meet the opportunities that lie ahead for him. I wish Charlie’s story was the story of all the nearly 20,000 children we serve each year, but it’s not. The system is broken, and we need elected leaders to prioritize our future now, before it’s too late.

For almost 190 years, Children’s Friend has provided paths to permanency, safety, and prosperity for our state’s children. We need significant and permanent investment from the State of Rhode Island to continue this work. With legislative deliberations winding down, now is the time for urgent action.


David Caprio is the President & CEO of Children’s Friend, which operates 13 locations throughout Providence, Central Falls, and Pawtucket serving families and children from prenatal to 8 years of age.