Guest MINDSETTER™ Arne Duncan, “A Promise Worth Keeping”

Wednesday, April 05, 2017


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Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

For as long as I’ve been involved in education policy, Democrats have always been the party that embraces education as an investment and a pathway out of poverty. As President Trump threatens to cut education funding and derail efforts to expand opportunity and make college more affordable, future generations are counting on Democratic leaders at the state level to make investments the federal government will not.


Your governor is one of the leaders people are counting on.


In just two years, Governor Gina Raimondo has put Rhode Island on a pathway to be the first state in America to offer computer science at every grade and in every school in the state. Because of investments to expand Pre-K and guarantee every child access to all-day kindergarten, Rhode Island’s youngest learners are building a foundation for success. High school students across Rhode Island are now able to take the PSAT and SAT at no cost and thousands of high schoolers are taking college courses – and earning college credits – for free. 


Rhode Island is making record investments in K-12 education, including a proposed $45 million increase in the budget currently being considered. And after years without any investment in school construction, Governor Raimondo lifted the moratorium when she took office and has invested tens of millions of dollars in school construction, which has put Rhode Islander laborers back to work.


She understands that high-quality instruction in science, technology, engineering and math can provide students with a lens to approach and view the world. Because she gets it, there’s a good chance that the next Mark Zuckerburg is a Latina student from South Providence learning to code at Central High School right now. 


If we truly want that for our kids, we need to support them beyond high school. If we truly want to ensure that today’s students are equipped to compete for the jobs businesses are creating, we must ensure that every student has an opportunity to attend college.


Since the start of 2010, the United States has added 11.6 million jobs. Of those, only 80,000 went to people who had a high school degree or less. By 2020, more than 70 percent of the jobs in Rhode Island will require some degree or credential beyond high school. That’s not entirely unique. Nationally, it’s about 65 percent. In Rhode Island, though, only four out of 10 working-age residents (and three out of 10 African Americans and one out of five Latinos) have completed a certificate or degree after high school. 


For too many, the greatest barrier to higher education is cost. For some, just $500 or $1,000 stand in the way of the opportunity to compete. Fifty one percent – more than half – of low-income students who start college, fail to graduate within six years. By and large, they’re good students. But cost gets in the way.


The Rhode Island Promise Scholarship proposal builds ladders of opportunity for all Rhode Island students. 


The scholarship, which guarantees every Rhode Island student an opportunity to attend the Community College of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College or University of Rhode Island for two years tuition-free, knocks down the most urgent barrier preventing Rhode Islanders from earning a degree. 


Cost should not be a barrier to getting a degree or credential, and Rhode Islanders should be able to attend public colleges and universities tuition-free.


While those statements are lifted directly from the Democratic National Committee’s and Rhode Island Democratic Party’s respective platforms, opportunity shouldn’t be a partisan issue. To get a good job in today’s economy and create pathways to the middle class, we need to make the necessary investments to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to get the skills and education they need to compete. It’s an investment that will have a significant return.


Governor Raimondo’s Rhode Island Promise Scholarship proposal offers a pathway to opportunity. As importantly, it provides businesses and other employers with better access to talented workers. And perhaps, it will propel one of those students from South Providence to start the next Facebook, the next Airbnb or a cancer-curing research organization.


Arne Duncan is a managing partner of the Emerson Collective and former U.S. Secretary of Education under President Barack Obama. 


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