Governor Deval Patrick proposed Tuesday to sharply increase spending on public education by more than $2.5 billion over the next four years, an investment he said was critical to the state’s social and economic future.
The money would benefit tens of thousands of the state’s youngest residents, from infants to college students, and would target specific aspects of Patrick’s long-standing education agenda that aims to build a more skilled workforce needed to drive the state’s economy.
The additional funding would begin with a $550 million increase for next year and it would gradually increase each year to an additional $1 billion annually by fiscal 2017. Patrick is expected to announce the specifics of how the state can generate revenue to pay for the proposal during his State of the State address Wednesday night.
But at a press conference Tuesday morning at the Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Roxbury, he said the additional revenue will probably require an increase in taxes and fees. Patrick said he thinks the economy is strong enough to ask taxpayers to fund his proposal.
“We’ve got to stop being afraid of that conversation,” he said. “We’ve got to stop asking third- and fourth-graders and preschoolers to wait until some magic perfect time. What we do right now assures that we have a stronger future. And I’m going to propose right now that we invest in that stronger future.”
It is unclear how the Legislature will react to Patrick’s proposal. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray say they will carefully weigh Patrick’s tax and spending plans.
Overhauling public education has been a cornerstone of Patrick’s administration since he took office in 2007. He pushed aggressively for legislation, enacted in 2010, that doubles the number of students who can attend charter schools in districts with the lowest MCAS scores and gave superintendent’s greater flexibility to turn around persistently low-achieving schools, helping the state land a $250 million federal grant.
Earlier this year, Patrick pitched a proposal to revamp the community college system.
This latest proposal focuses heavily on expanding early childhood education, an area subjected to state cuts in recent years that alarmed educators and advocates across the state. Early education is considered essential in making sure students arrive in kindergarten ready for school.
Specifically, the governor is aiming to expand opportunities to attend day care and preschool programs so that more than 30,000 children can get off waiting lists. He also is encouraging school districts to create pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year-olds by offering districts per-student state aid for them. Currently, the state only gives districts state aid for 4-year-olds if they require special education.
“Unless we ensure that all children have access to high-quality learning opportunities in their earliest years when learning and achievement gaps begin to form, we will never reach our goals of all students reading proficiently by Grade 3,” Patrick told a crowd of students, staff, parents, and elected officials gathered in the auditorium at Orchard Gardens. “It is an educational and economic issue to have an achievement gap at all, but to let it languish as long as we have is a moral question.’’
Patrick’s proposal also seeks to bolster programs in elementary and secondary education and higher education by:
■ Expanding the number of middle schools with extended days. This effort would get an additional $5 million next year, and an additional $70 million annually in subsequent years. This year, the state is spending just $14.2 million to extend days at 19 elementary, middle, and high schools.
■ Increasing state aid to cities and towns by $226 million a year; the state currently spends a total of about $4.2 billion annually on so-called Chapter 70 monies.
■ Spending an additional $152 million next year to make college more affordable and accessible to a greater number of students. That increase would gradually increase to $274 million a year by 2017. Some of the money would go to expanding the MASSGrant program, which provides assistance for student with the greatest financial need. Currently, 57,000 students receive grants totalling $37 million.
■ Providing an additional $20 million per year for community colleges, and a commitment to funding 50 percent of the educational costs at the University of Massachusetts, the state universities, and the community colleges.
Shortly after the announcement, the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center issued two reports that highlighted early childhood education. One found that spending had declined by 25 percent since 2001. The other found that early childhood education not only benefits low-income children who receive it but also their parents, who can return to the workforce.
Noah Berger, the group’s president, said funding the governor’s proposed investment in education “won’t be easy,” but he said it would be worthwhile.
“The quality of education students receive won’t only shape their lives but the state’s economy,” Berger said.
Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said Patrick’s proposal addresses some of the most significant issues that a recent gathering of superintendents identified, in K-12 as well as early childhood education and higher education.
“I think it is a really powerful set of ideas that are very targeted and could make a real difference for people,” Scott said.
But he questioned whether the political will exists to increase revenue to cover the price tag. He also said that as much as many districts, particularly urban ones, want to offer prekindergarten to more 4-year-olds, they may not have enough space for more students and need additional school buildings.
UMass president Robert L. Caret said he supports the governor’s educational proposal.
“We believe that a 50-50 approach to funding our core educational budget is the best path for our students, their families, and for the Commonwealth,” Caret said. “It is a fair and equitable approach and is the key to providing our citizens with a higher education option that melds quality with affordability.”