House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed offered sharply contrasting views Wednesday on the merits of Governor Gina Raimondo's proposal to give Rhode Islanders two years of free tuition at CCRI, RIC, or URI.
During an annual legislative luncheon sponsored by the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, Mattiello indicated he's grown increasingly opposed to Raimondo's free college tuition plan. He cited a variety of concerns.
But Paiva Weed expressed strong support for the proposal, calling it a vital part of improving the state's economy and preparing young people for good jobs.
Mattiello praised Raimondo for being innovative and creative, and he said her college tuition proposal will be reviewed during committee hearings. But his criticism of the governor's education proposal raises questions about whether the House will support it.
Speaking in front of hundreds of business people at the RI Convention Center, Mattiello said the state should move slowly when considering new spending "because we don't have the strongest economy, so we have to be very careful in being an outlier in any area -- whether it's on the revenue or the expense side."
The speaker said the state should concentrate on K-12 education, "because we're failing our students there to a certain extent .... We have demographic problems in these schools and we have to figure out a way how to address it and to deliver the education that we're offering all of these kids." He said CCRI, URI, and RIC are at capacity, and questioned how introducing more students would speed the process of educating them.
Mattiello added, "Sometimes, when you give stuff for free, or you call it free -- someone else is paying for it -- you devalue it. And if you look at K-through-12, people aren't taking advantage to a certain extent -- and there are societal problems there, so I don't blame the kid and I don't blame the families. But there's a disconnect, and we have to figure out a way to connect those students with the education that we're offering before we extend the same model to higher education, at the taxpayer expense."
By contrast, Paiva Weed touted the free tuition proposal as a way to help young Rhode Islanders get better jobs.
"I'm grateful that with the new governor, with Governor Raimondo, we have finally as a state embraced workforce development," she said.
"It is something that we as a state turned our back on for too long. And a critical component of workforce development and job training is education," Paiva Weed said, "and quite honestly, I feel a little different than the speaker. I think it's not K-12. [The focus should be] pre-K to 14, and that includes our institutions of higher education."
Paiva Weed said the state has taken steps in recent years to strengthen career pathways for young people, with the introduction of free PSAT and SATS last year opening up avenues to college for students who didn't previously consider it.
"Even though they're highly qualified, they don't think they can afford it," she said. "They've never had a parent who went to college. And so now, they take this SAT ... and all of a sudden these colleges are contacting them," and offering them opportunities.
Paiva Weed said Raimondo's free tuition plan is important since it will encourage high school sophomores to consider pursuing a certificate nursing assistant degree, a manufacturing certificate, and other degrees tied to particular jobs.
"Not every student is as lucky as I am who had parents that said to them, 'You're going to college,' and never knew there was a choice to be made," the Senate president said. "There's another group of kids that not only do they not know if they have a choice, they don't think they can do it. I think it is important that we provide an opportunity and a vision."
The House and Senate will consider Raimondo's free tuition plan as part of the budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.