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Martha Coakley bests Charlie Baker on early education

Martha Coakley greets voters Sunday in Framingham.
Martha Coakley greets voters Sunday in Framingham.(Associated Press)

Here’s what I believe about gubernatorial candidates Charlie Baker and Martha Coakley: Notwithstanding campaign ads and debate zingers, both of them care about education, narrowing the achievement gap, expanding opportunities for kids.

But when it comes to early education, their rhetoric is telling — because it says something about their vision.

To be fair, policywise, the divide between the candidates isn't nearly as wide as it seemed during the primary campaign, when Coakley repeatedly pledged to establish universal pre-K — and Baker's camp loudly pointed out the eye-popping $1.5 billion price tag.

These days, universal pre-K isn't even on the table. Instead, Coakley advocates something narrow but specific, and still pleasing to her base: Spending $150 million, right away, to take some 16,000 low-income kids off a state waiting list for deeply subsidized care. (She's less specific about where that money will come from.)

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Baker wants to shrink the waiting list, too. (And he was right to question the value of "universal:" Do we need to subsidize preschoolers in Weston?) But he says he wants to phase in the investment, and target specific locations. And he sounds a note of caution that Coakley hasn't raised.

In particular, Baker points to a couple of studies, from the Brookings Institution and the Obama administration, that suggest that the benefits of early education can dissipate by third grade, particularly if a child goes to an underperforming school. That's why, Baker says, he wants to concentrate on improving K-12 schools before embarking on a broad preschool expansion that might not yield results.

It's reasonable — and, frankly, part of Baker's appeal — to question returns on investment and evaluate state spending based on cold, hard facts.

But let's talk about what this waiting list actually is. Through the program Coakley refers to, the Department of Early Education and Care currently provides subsidized child care to 15,557 low-income children, ages 0 to 5 — offering them spaces in, or vouchers for, licensed facilities across the state. There are more eligible kids on the waiting list: As of this month, 16,159 of them, many of them from gateway cities.

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And even kids who currently take part in the program are sometimes at risk of losing their slots. That's because a large portion of the department's $543 million budget comes from federal dollars or state matching funds. So the program follows federal rules that tie eligibility, not to a child's needs, but to a parent's status. To get child care assistance, a parent must be working, or actively seeking employment, or serving in the military, or taking part in a qualified educational program. If something changes — say, mom drops out of school or stays unemployed for too long — the subsidy disappears.

A big part of the argument for early education is getting kids ready for school. To be licensed by the state, a child care provider has to offer a curriculum: English and math readiness skills, starting even at birth. And there are plenty of studies, as Coakley's camp points out, that suggest the long-term benefits of early education.

But child care is also a pillar of family life: It gives kids stability and comfort, and parents the ability to work and go to school. And expanding the department's budget, with state funds, would accomplish something else: allowing the department to expand its eligibility rules, decreasing the risk that a child would be yanked from a safe, comfortable setting because of his parents' challenges.

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Baker, as I said, is sincere about wanting to fix education for underprivileged kids. He has some very good ideas about evaluating schools and identifying ways to improve them.

But as a governor, you also have to set priorities. And when it comes to young kids, and the intangibles around them, you sometimes have to look expansively, too.


Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.