Rhode Island Advocates Call on State to Increase Head Start funding

Closure of sites over past three years has stressed child care system.

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WARWICK — Head Start programs in Rhode Island need more funding to tackle a staffing shortage in the fiscal year 2024 budget, or face imminent collapse.

That was the message program leaders, advocates, and parents gathered Tuesday at CHILD, Inc.’s Centerville Road location to send to the General Assembly as it prepares to vote on the budget later this week.

“We’re going to see a breakdown of the early childhood education system in Rhode Island in the next couple of years,” Mary Varr, the executive director of Woonsocket Head Start Child Development Association, Inc., said at the press conference.

About 30 advocates gathered to call on policymakers to increase the current allocation of $8 million for early childhood programs by an additional $6.5 million in Gov. Dan McKee’s fiscal year 2024 budget proposal. The budget is scheduled for a debate and vote on the House floor June 9 and June 10.

The advocates said policymakers need to increase funding to insure access to all Rhode Island children to early childhood programs like Head Start, a free federal preschool program for low-income toddlers and pre-school age children launched as one of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs in the 1960s.

“I don’t know what it’s going to take to make our littlest children our top priority,” Khadija Lewis Khan, executive director of Beautiful Beginnings Childcare Center, a Head Start provider in Providence. “It’s very shortsighted your state to de-invest in early childhood education.”

The group called on the General Assembly to invest the following:

$3 million in state general revenue money to Head Start and Early Head Start programs to help programs compensate teachers and staff and reopen classrooms.
$2 million in federal or state funding to raise the family income required for Head Start programs from 200% to 225% of the federal poverty level. Currently, Rhode Island’s family income cutoff is $49,720 for a family of three.
$1.5 million put towards increased pay for workers in early childhood education.

When asked for comment, Speaker of the House K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, said the House of Representatives was looking into the funding.

“There are always issues that need to be evaluated after the passage of the budget by the House Finance Committee,” Shekarchi said in an email. “This is one of them.”

Senate President Sen. Dominick Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, and Gov. Dan McKee did not respond to requests for comment.

Staffing crisis

A major motivator behind the call is a staffing shortage, leading to the closure of 30 of the 108 Head Start programs in Rhode Island since 2020 and 11 of the 40 total Early Head Start programs.

“Seeing the staff crisis and classes having to close,” Roshana Perry, a teacher at Joyful Noise Child Care, a West Warwick pre-school, said, “it’s really sad.”

Lisa Hildebrand, executive director of the Rhode Island Association Education of Young Children, said there are currently about 6,000 child care workers in Rhode Island, though there currently is no central database.

Though numbers are hard to come by, child care facility operators noted that low wages in the industry have led to an exodus forcing the classroom closures.

“It’s a crisis,” Khan said. “We need money to elevate the level of income of our employees.

“We are behind other states in our area and I don’t think that’s what we want to be known for.”

David Caprio, president and chief executive officer of Children’s Friend, said his staff shrank since their pre-pandemic number of 450 to 405 presently.

“I’m not going to say all,” he said, “but many did cite the wage as reason for their leaving.”

The median hourly wage for a child care educator in Rhode Island was $13.26 in 2021, according to the Rhode Island Kids Count 2023 Factbook. That rate increased by slightly more than a dollar for preschool educators. Hildebrand said the requested budget increase could go towards increasing that pay.

“You’re getting paid to work more at Target,” Varr, the director of a Woonsocket Head Start program, said. “Is it really that difficult to find the dollars?

“We can’t spend less than 1% [of the budget] on our children?”

Hildebrand, the association director, said advocates could only pray that policy makers live up to Rhode Island’s motto.

“Hope,” she said. “That’s all we have for the next two days.”

Rhode Island Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Rhode Island Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janine L. Weisman for questions: info@rhodeislandcurrent.com. Follow Rhode Island Current on Facebook and Twitter.

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