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Providence - The five major gubernatorial candidates agree Rhode Island needs a strong school system for its economy to thrive, but their plans to transform it differ.
It's an issue many voters care deeply about, too.
Parents who played with their children at Lippitt Memorial Park in Providence said they want the state to provide prekindergarten education because preschool is expensive and they are concerned with the quality of education in the public schools. Emma Sperling, of Pawtucket, said she worries she will have to move to a different school district before her 2-year-old son goes to kindergarten.
"I'd like to be able to send my kid to public school and not worry about whether he's getting an acceptable education," she said.
Anna Kuperman, a teacher who lives in Providence, said she doesn't think high school students should have to pass a standardized test to graduate. She said she wants a governor "who will stand up and say, 'All of this testing has actually done nothing and it has been a huge waste of money."'
Democratic candidates Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Clay Pell want to spend more on public schools. The first policy Taveras proposed as a candidate was state-funded universal prekindergarten education for all 4-year-olds.
Republican candidate Allan Fung supports pre-K but doesn't want it to be mandatory. Pell wants to fund all-day kindergarten first.
For Raimondo, rebuilding the state's deteriorating elementary, middle and high schools is a priority. She said she would equip classrooms with technology, invest in extracurricular activities and create a school building authority that would use a portion of the state sales tax to help fund school construction.
Pell, a former official in the U.S. Department of Education, proposed a program to expedite reimbursements to school districts during construction. Taveras wants to create a trust to provide funding for infrastructure projects at a subsidized interest rate, including building and repairing schools. Fung favors a public-private partnership to pay for schools' infrastructure needs.
Pell rolled out a wide-ranging education plan early in his campaign with several initiatives to make college more affordable. He proposed giving some students free tuition at the Community College of Rhode Island for two years, implementing a two-year tuition freeze for higher education at public institutions and providing additional aid for college grants.
Fung, the Cranston mayor, called for a four-year freeze in tuition at state schools. Raimondo said she would create a new scholarship fund for academically qualified students to attend state schools and a student loan forgiveness program for graduates who live and work in Rhode Island. Republican candidate and businessman Ken Block believes the state must address the budget deficit because, otherwise, it won't be able to fund higher education.
Fung's plan centers on changing how the state's educational institutions are governed. He wants the state education commissioner to report directly to the governor instead of to a board and for a board of trustees to be established at the University of Rhode Island.
Fung also wants separate education boards - one for kindergarten through 12th grade and one for higher education. The General Assembly voted in 2012 to merge them.
Block said that the merging caused problems and that he, too, would re-evaluate the system for education oversight. Block has focused on improving early childhood education, which he says addresses the root of the problem by preventing students from falling behind.
Fung and Taveras plan to release full education plans in the coming weeks, according to their campaigns. Block is updating his vision because of the changes in the legislative session, his campaign said.
The General Assembly passed legislation to delay by three years the use of standardized tests, including the New England Common Assessment Program, as a high school graduation requirement and to make evaluations for many public school teachers less frequent. Both recently became law.
The Democratic candidates supported placing a moratorium on NECAP and restructuring the teacher evaluation system. Fung supports using NECAP as a test, not as a graduation requirement, but wants regular teacher evaluations. Block came out strongly against eliminating both testing and annual evaluations for teachers.
Christine Lopes Metcalfe, executive director of the education advocacy organization RI-CAN, said she evaluates education platforms based on whether they support childhood education, expand public charter schools, improve school facilities, set high expectations for students, cultivate talented teachers and ensure no student falls behind. RI-CAN is nonpartisan and isn't endorsing a candidate.
"We're very encouraged," she said. "The next leader of our state needs to have a vision for education."
Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a Democrat, isn't running for a second term. The primary is Sept. 9.