A new report from nonprofit Rhode Island Kids Count showed that racial disparities and a workforce crisis are at the heart of the problems plaguing the state’s education system. Morning Edition Host Luis Hernandez spoke with the executive director, Paige Clausius-Parks, about some of the key takeaways from the report, and what we can learn from them. 


Luis Hernandez: How should we be looking at this recent data from the factbook that you have? I mean, is there room for optimism? Or do we just point out the problems that are really noticeable?

Paige Clausius-Parks: So the 2023 Rhode Island Kids Count factbook highlights a few things that we really need to pay close attention to. One is that we've included information around the root causes of the disparities that we see in the factbook and all indicators. We really need to look at and call out those root causes, so that we can work to address those root causes. Because without us really knowing why things are, we can't change them. As well as information around how are our kids doing now, post-pandemic. 

Hernandez: One of the things that jumped out at me is talking about Head Start, and talking about those early programs in a child's development. What does the data tell us specifically about that? Because that didn't look good.

Clausius-Parks: So Head Start, for decades research has shown us that Head Start has a positive impact on children. So children who participate in Head Start, it improves their academic cognitive language and social emotional skills, as well as their health. However, due to non-competitive wages, we're seeing a workforce crisis in all of our early childhood programs, and especially in Head Start, and early Head Start.

Hernandez: I mean, we've lost a lot of Head Start programs.

Clausius-Parks: We've lost 30 Head Start classrooms, and limited enrollment in 14 early Head Start classrooms, which is moving in the wrong direction, because we know this program is high quality. It serves low-income students. We need to make sure those classrooms stay open.

Hernandez: Is it we can't find the teachers, or is it simply the pay?

Clausius-Parks: The pay is a big piece of it. So we need for our state to contribute more general revenue into those programs, so that we're able to offer competitive wages. We've heard from, you know, early Head Start and Head Start, and early childhood educators in general, that their wages are so low. They're lower than most fast food workers. But the responsibility of these folks are clearly, I mean, they're with our youngest children. They do a really important job. So we need to pay them that way.

Hernandez: You spend a lot of time with lawmakers. When they see that, I'm just curious what they say.

Clausius-Parks: Well, I think many policymakers are surprised by that, also feel like that's moving in the wrong direction. I think many folks are on the same page that we need to keep these programs open. What we're hoping to see is actually the state saying, not only do we want to keep them open but we're going to put the money into that as well. It's one thing to want something and hope for something, it’s another thing to act on it. So we would like to see the budget, when it's passed, includes funding, includes general revenue for our child care and our early childhood development programs.

Hernandez: The data also shows us that Rhode Island's student population is becoming more diverse. But also, you know, we see, as you talk about, the disparities, especially the racial disparities. Briefly explain, what is the data telling us?

Clausius-Parks: So we have an increasingly diverse population in Rhode Island. So young children and youth are more likely to identify as people of color than older folks. So we are becoming a really diverse population. This diversity is a wonderful thing. It's a great thing. And we need to address the disparities that we see because if we don't, most of our population will not be able to access the opportunities that we know that they deserve, based on systemic racism that we see, ableism, not accepting of multilingual learners. We really need to address these things so that all of our students and our young people and our children are able to grow and thrive into adults that are able to work and have family-sustaining wages and be productive.

Hernandez: I wonder if I read this right. It seemed like a silver lining in the whole thing is that the rate of disconnection, the disconnection rate, which is basically those kids who are not in school, is actually lower. It's gone down?

Clausius-Parks: Right. And we're actually, compared to the rest of the country, we have the lowest rate of youth that are not involved in school or in work. So we have young people who are engaged and get into programs. So that is something that is really great that we don't talk enough about. So I think our school systems are doing a great job keeping kids in school, keeping kids in school longer. Our out of school time professionals are also working with young people to keep them connected. And we have great workforce development programs, as well, for our young people.

Hernandez: We know the governor has goals to improve our education. And he's always comparing it to Massachusetts – “we're gonna catch up to those kids.” Should we be looking at Massachusetts and saying we need to catch up to them? Or just, you know, maybe we should just be looking at what are we doing, are we doing enough?

Clausius-Parks: I think we need to have a measure. We need to have a goal to reach. And Massachusetts, you know, has been the national model for many, many years. It doesn't mean they do it perfectly. Massachusetts also has disparities in their education outcomes. And they have been putting work into adjusting the way they fund their schools in order to address those disparities. So what we can, I think, look to Massachusetts to is their commitment to education, and how they've been able to get on the same page and have a long-term plan for education. They've made the plan. They're working that plan. They're investing in that plan. They’re looking at it again, revising it as needed. That is something that I think we should be doing in Rhode Island, as well.

Hernandez: The legislative session is going to end soon. How optimistic are you that lawmakers are putting the right amount of money and the right amount of effort into trying to fix some of the problems that this data is telling us?

Clausius-Parks: Well, I have to be optimistic. We have to be optimistic because I, you know–

Hernandez: But can you be optimistic and realistic, though, at the same time?

Clausius-Parks: Well, I think our policymakers are paying attention. They look at the data, which is great. And then the Rhode Island Kids Count factbook shows that data very clearly. And we've been so proud to be a part of some really important campaigns, like the Right From the Start campaign and the Raising Rhode Island Coalition, that continues to bring information and facts to those policymakers, as well as connecting them to the community members who this, these legislation and these budgetary investments impact. So I'm feeling really optimistic that we're getting the message out there. We will continue to push until the very last minute for our policymakers to make sure that they're brave enough and bold enough to make these investments in our children and families, and for them to connect that investing and families, investing in kids is an investment in Rhode Island. And that is the right place to put our dollars.

Hernandez: Paige, it's always a pleasure to talk to you. I really appreciate it. 

Clausius-Parks: Thank you for having me.

Click here to read the Rhode Island Kids Count 2023 Factbook.