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Raimondo touts free tuition proposal at high schools

Gov. Gina Raimondo is out on the campaign trail, taking her pitch to high schools. (WJAR)

Gov. Gina Raimondo is out on the campaign trail, taking her pitch to high schools.

“You go from kindergarten to twelfth grade with public education. Why should it stop at twelfth grade?” Raimondo asked an auditorium of students at Johnston High School on Tuesday.

Afterward, she told reporters it is indeed a campaign to rally support for her plan to offer two free years of college tuition to Rhode Island high school graduates.

She said she’s out to “tell the students to get involved and help me get this passed.”

“It’s also a civics lesson for these kids to get engaged,” Raimondo said. “Go to FreecollegeRI.com and help me get it passed.”

But at least one representative thinks it’s unfair.

“It is a conflict of interest,” Rep. Bob Nardolillo told NBC 10 News. “I feel as if it borderlines on campaigning, is really what it is.”

The problem with his contention is that there is nothing illegal or even unethical about what she is doing. There might be a problem if she were actually campaigning for office, but she is actually conducting what is known as “issue advocacy,” which is regulated entirely differently than electioneering, or campaigning for oneself.

Nardolillo has a more fundamental problem with her proposal, and that is financing.

“Every year, the budget increases. I don’t feel strongly and confidently that the finances are there,” Nardolillo said. “I am tremendously concerned with the funding, I am.”

The governor’s office said financing is in place. They expect that this year it will cost $10 million.

The program is only for high school graduates who go immediately to college. Free tuition will be offered for both years at the Community College of Rhode Island, if students keep up their grades and course load.

At the four year schools, only the final two years will be free, in order to encourage completion of degrees. Again, students must have maintained a full course load so they can graduate in four years.

The delay in offering those tuition-free years is why the program will not cost the full estimate of $30million annually until 2022. Raimondo’s office said more money than that has already been saved through Medicaid reform, and that state revenues are increasing, as well.

One issue to be dealt with is the expected increase in enrollment in all three of the state schools. The University of Rhode Island is preparing for an increase of students of more than 20 percent, and the other schools are also expecting more students under the plan.

It will remain up to the legislature to decide whether to include it in this year’s budget.

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