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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The state budget proposal approved by the Rhode Island House of Representatives Friday includes an additional $7 million for early childhood education programs, House Speaker Joe Shekarchi announced.

Early learning providers, child care workers and families held a rally Wednesday in Warwick to call for more funding, saying it’s crucial to address the industry’s staffing crisis. They said the inability to hire and maintain staff has caused more than a quarter of Head Start classrooms to close, leading to long waitlists and a lack of affordable child care.

Shekarchi’s office announced Friday morning — hours before the House was set to kick off the floor debate on the budget bill — that he would back an amendment allocating $3 million for Head Start and Early Head Start programs and another $4 million for a pilot program to expand eligibility for child care.

The speaker said the money will come from “unspent federal funds.”

“Quality child care is very important to the House and Senate leadership and membership, and many members encouraged me to help find resources to help preserve these vital programs,” Shekarchi said in a statement. “It is critical that we continue to address staffing shortages within both programs in a sustainable way.”

Paige Clausius-Parks of Rhode Island Kids Count and RIght from the Start thanked Shekarchi in a statement issued by his office, saying the investment will help ensure more classrooms can open in September and “all Rhode Island kids get off to the right start.”

“Child care and early learning programs are foundational to Rhode Island’s kids, families, and our economy,” she said. “They provide our babies and young children with high quality learning opportunities, and they enable parents to work and contribute to our economy. And all of that is enabled by our workforce of early educators who deserve worthy wages for the work they do.”

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio later released a statement praising the inclusion of the amendment.

“I have been proud to work with Speaker Joseph Shekarchi throughout this year’s budget process to help develop a responsible spending plan that serves Rhode Islanders and makes critical investments in our state’s future,” he said. “From funding the tangible tax exemption, to increasing overall education aid by $52.6 million and establishment of the Hope Scholarship at Rhode Island College, the budget includes many Senate priorities. I am especially pleased that additional, necessary funding for early childhood education has been included above and beyond the restorations to the budget approved by the House Finance Committee.”

“Access to quality early childhood education helps to close achievement gaps and lays the foundation for a lifetime of success,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Louis DiPalma added. “That is why it has been so important to us in the Senate to expand access to early childhood education. I am very pleased with the funding that has been added to help ensure all Rhode Island families can access quality early learning programs.”

The budget now heads to the Senate Finance Committee, which is scheduled to consider it next Tuesday.

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