Providence, R.I. – The National Education Association Rhode Island (NEARI) today announced their priorities for 2024 to a packed gathering at the Statehouse made up of lawmakers and officials, issue allies, and NEARI members representing educators and school support staff from Kindergarten to college, municipal and state workers, and retirees.

“Whether you’re a teacher, paraprofessional, custodian, professor, public health worker, or support staff: what you do really matters,” NEARI President Senator Val Lawson told members in her opening remarks. “You make Rhode Island a stronger, more caring place every day. You deserve fair wages, good benefits, and a secure retirement. And all our students deserve the best education we can provide. That is why we’re here.”

Speakers highlighted pension reform, common sense gun safety, targeted funding for multilingual learners, and universal healthy school meals for all students as the focus for the legislative session.

“This year, our primary focus is pension reform,” said NEARI Executive Director Mary Barden. “Any improvements to the pension system should address members in all categories, including retirees. The reforms from 2011 were drastic, went too far, and had unintended consequences.

“The negative impact continues to be felt by so many: our retirees whose COLAs were frozen, our active members who are working longer for less, and, when folks can drive 20 minutes for a much better pension in another state, you understand why pension reform is our top priority.”

Barden went on to mention the Pension Advisory Working Group convened by General Treasurer James Diossa and NEARI’s participation in the hearings. She said NEARI is in the process of analyzing the actuarial studies of proposed solutions to provide relief for all members.

Addressing gun safety legislation, Jen Saarinen, a math teacher at Kickemuit Middle School in the Bristol Warren Regional School District said educators and students from kindergarten to higher education have advocated tirelessly: signing petitions, marching for their lives, testifying in hearings, and wearing orange against gun violence for awareness.

“Here in Rhode Island, we don’t want to wait until we add to the statistics to make a change, but it requires political will. Passage of the Safe Storage Act and the assault weapons ban will bring a layer of safety to our Rhode Island schools and communities,” Saarinen said.

NEARI also supports targeted funding for Multilingual Learners, or MLLs, which Governor Dan McKee prioritized in his budget proposal earlier this year. According to the Annenberg Institute State of Recovery Report (September 2023), by 2022-2023, MLLs in Rhode Island schools had increased to over 17,000 students, from 9,000 in 2012-2013. That number represents nearly 13% of all students.

“Multilingual Learners, or MLLs, have increased in number and the need for resources is felt across districts; in urban, suburban, and rural alike,” said Sue Warburton, teacher of MLLs at Quidnessett Elementary School in North Kingstown. “We are thankful to Governor McKee for placing a priority on MLLs and we look forward to working with the General Assembly on allocation of targeted funding as we continue to work toward a fair and equitable funding formula for Rhode Island.”

Healthy School Meals for All (also known as Universal Free School Meals) means offering free breakfast and lunch to all students, regardless of their household income, as part of the school day so they can learn and thrive. The pandemic taught us many important lessons – and with school meals, we learned there is a better way to provide nutrition for our children.

“Study after study demonstrates that Universal Healthy School Meals for All supports student well-being, reduces administrative costs, increases investment in food service programs, eliminates unpaid meal debt, removes stigma from the lunchroom, and increases equity in our schools. Let’s provide the vital nutrition children need so they can focus on academic success,” said Scott Conley, special educator at Davies Career & Technical High School.

At the close of the event, Barden brought attention to additional issues of importance to NEARI members. The ongoing mental health crisis plaguing our students and educators must be addressed. We must craft a funding formula for education that does not gut district budgets. Our CCRI and URI bargaining units are currently fighting for higher wages and supports for their students, and the professional staff at the RI Department of Health is urging an increase to the FTE cap, so they can better ensure the safety of all Rhode Islanders.

NEARI members in attendance followed the announcement by talking one-on-one with legislators, urging them to support meaningful pension reform, strong public education, and the wages and staffing Rhode Island workers deserve.

See NEARI Legislative Program for more