Dina Rudick/Globe Staff
They can’t vote. They can’t read a ballot. And even if they could, they could not step up to the voting booth without a footstool.
Yet preschoolers are being targeted in nearly every speech by Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate for governor, who says expanding prekindergarten programs would give children a boost on their way to elementary school and even keep them out of jail years later.
Charlie Baker, the Republican nominee, said he also supports more prekindergarten programs, but has questioned whether they are the most effective way to produce long-term academic success.
It is just one of several points of conflict between the two rivals, who share many overall goals, but emphasize different priorities on education.
Baker, for example, strongly backs more charter schools, while Coakley offers more qualified support. Baker is also open to scrapping the state’s new curriculum standards and testing system, while Coakley calls them important advancements.
But no issue has gained more attention than expanding prekindergarten, an idea that has been embraced by President Obama, as well as by business executives who point to studies showing that good preschool programs lead to better reading skills in kindergarten and better academic performance later in school.
Baker has argued that if Coakley were to follow through on her campaign rhetoric and make prekindargarten free for all children, as part of the regular public school system, it would cost $1.5 billion annually and require a tax increase.
But Coakley’s plan is much more modest than that. She said that during the next four years, she would eliminate the waiting list of 16,400 children from low-income families who are eligible for state-subsidized preschool and daycare vouchers.
Coakley said that would cost $150 million annually. She has not explained how she would pay for the increase. She simply insists she will find room in the state budget.
“That should be our priority,” she said recently after visiting a Head Start center in Quincy, where she knelt at a table with 3- and 4-year-olds who were playing with a plastic hamburger and plastic broccoli. “That is my message to people in this race. That’s not Charlie Baker’s message. And that is one big difference between us.”
Coakley’s plans fall short of the promise she made in her primary night speech, when she declared, “When I am governor, there will be universal pre-K for all children.”
While 8 percent of the 225,00 children ages 3 to 5 in Masachusetts currently receive state vouchers, 43 percent are in privately financed preschool and 30 percent are not in any formal program, according to Early Education for All, an advocacy group.
Baker said in February that he supports a “significant increase in the number of low-income students with access to high-quality early education programs.” But he has suggested he might focus more on strengthening elementary schools.
“My view on this is, sure, we should do more; sure, we should shore up the stuff we currently do,” he said recently. “But we’ve got to make sure that the kids who come out of that system are going into elementary school systems where they’re going to get the kind of education they need to get the benefit associated with pre-K in the first place.”
Baker has said that expanding charter schools would be one of his top priorities, and he wants to allow at least 50 more during the next four years. That could set up a clash with the Democrat-led Legislature, which has resisted recent attempts to allow more charter schools, beyond the 80 currently operating in Massachusetts.
“Charters are not only providing thousands of underserved students with access to high-quality schools, they are also empowering low-income urban parents with choices that were once reserved for wealthier suburban families,” Baker wrote in response to a questionnaire from the Massachusetts Teachers Association, a union that opposes charter schools. “Denying them these options when they are so readily available is nothing less than an affront to their civil rights.”
Coakley, who has been endorsed by the teachers’ association, has offered comparatively tentative support for more charter schools.
“I support lifting the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts, as long as we ensure accountability for the success of students in those schools and adequate protections for teachers,” she told MassLive.com in August. “However, I support prohibiting for-profit charter schools and revoking the charters of schools that fail to accept and retain the appropriate number of English language learners and special education students.”
Coakley is less inclined than Baker to scrap the Common Core, a set of national education standards recently adopted in Massachusetts, as well as a new online testing system, known as PARCC, that is slated to replace the MCAS test.
Baker echoes the view of critics who argue the national standards and national testing system may not be as academically rigorous as the previous systems developed by Massachusetts education officials.
“If it turns out we’re lowering standards, then we should not shrink from scrapping Common Core and PARCC,” Baker wrote in his teachers’ association questionnaire. “Being above average isn’t good enough.”
Coakley shares the view of state officials who argue the new standards place greater emphasis on critical thinking by requiring students to explain their answers. That, in turn, will encourage schools to focus more on teaching those skills.
Both candidates favor a longer school day and promote their own pet education ideas.
Coakley wants to increase the number of “support counselors” to find services for students who are hungry, homeless, or abused.
Baker wants vocational high schools to grant associate’s degrees and public colleges to award bachelor’s degrees in three years, saving tuition costs.
Two of independent candidates for governor, former business executive Evan Falchuk and venture capitalist Jeff McCormick, have advanced their agendas to improve schools.
Both support increasing the number of charter schools, but Falchuk said his top priority would be rewriting the state’s education funding formula, which has not been updated in years, to account for the rising cost of health care and special education, as well as the expansion of charter schools.
He also wants to appoint a panel of experts to lay out a long-term blueprint for public education.
“I want that group to look to the future, beyond the day-to-day challenges facing us today, and describe what an educational system would look like that was modern, advanced, highly functioning, and studentcentric,” he wrote.
McCormick said he supports a longer school day and additional early education programs. He said one of his top priorities would be improving vocational education by urging businesses to fund more programs for high school students.
“State government needs to engage the private sector to build public-private partnerships in all areas, but especially when it comes to education.” he said. “For example, we have world-class hospitals in Boston that we can partner with to educate our kids at struggling schools like Madison Park for jobs in health care.”
A third independent candidate, Scott Lively, a Christian pastor, said he would prioritize home-schooling, then private religious schools, followed by charter schools, and, last, traditional public schools.
“The more that parents take responsibility for the education of their children, the better the result,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Globe. “Conversely, the more that parents defer to government to raise their children, the worse the result.”
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