In a forum at UMass Boston on Saturday, eight of the candidates in the Massachusetts race for governor made news by agreeing that the commonwealth should improve the quality of preschool programs and expand access to them.
This consensus adds to the growing political support for early education and care both here in Massachusetts and nationally. Ten years ago, research on the benefits of high-quality pre-k were not widely understood, nor part of the public discourse. Today, policymakers and candidates understand that these programs are essential first steps in educating children and preparing them to succeed in the state’s high-tech economy.
Sponsored by Strategies for Children and more than two dozen other organizations (see program agenda for full sponsor list), the “Early Childhood and Education: Closing the Achievement and Opportunity Gaps – 2014 Gubernatorial Candidates Forum” gave candidates the opportunity to share their vision for educating the state’s youngest children. It was a chance to hear how the next governor of Massachusetts might reshape the landscape of early education and care.
The eight candidates who attended are:
Joe Avellone Mark Fisher
Don Berwick Steve Grossman
Martha Coakley Juliette Kayyem
Evan Falchuk Jeff McCormick
The forum was moderated by Alison King, a political reporter for New England Cable News, She asked the candidates a wide range of questions and kept the discussion lively and balanced.
How should Massachusetts proceed? The candidates varied in their approaches. Several called for cutting healthcare costs to help fund preschool programs. Others argued that creating more jobs for parents was a crucial step. In addition, we also asked all the candidates to share the names of their favorite children’s books.
Voters across Massachusetts can build on this political momentum by seizing the chance to elect a governor who recognizes that investing in children, starting from birth, will yield huge returns for the state.
So please let the candidates know how important early education and care is to the commonwealth. And please vote. The primary election will be Tuesday, September 9, 2014. And the general election will be on Tuesday, November 4, 2014.
Click here for information on registering to vote in Massachusetts. The deadline for registering to vote in the primary is Wednesday, August 20, 2014. The deadline for registering to vote in the general election is Wednesday, October 15, 2014.
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Here, in alphabetical order, are some of the comments made by the candidates.
“It is time for action now,” Avellone said. “The number one priority in my campaign is to close the achievement gap” and give all kinds of kids a chance.
Avellone, a democrat, is corporate senior vice president at PAREXEL International, a global bio-pharmaceutical research company.
Avellone called for a “holistic” approach that would include a birth-to-age-3 focus, as well as more research on the vocabulary gap that is evident when children are 18 months old. He would invest in programs such as home visiting in high-poverty areas and encourage parents who don’t speak English to teach their children in their native language.
He would lengthen the school day and fund education and professional development opportunities for early educators. He would also raise salaries and offer student loan forgiveness programs.
“I’m struck by the ever rising tide of youth violence,” Avellone said. He called on Massachusetts to become a leader in behavioral and mental health services. He lamented state budget cuts to mental health services and said that Massachusetts never built enough community mental health programs, especially for children and adolescents.
Asked if birth-to-age-5 should be supported by public dollars, Avellone said yes and that he has a plan to focus on underfunded schools.
His favorite children’s book: “Horton Hears a Who,” by Dr. Seuss.
“At bottom, this is about values,” Berwick said: among them, the values of helping each other; alleviating injustice; and fighting childhood poverty.
Berwick, a democrat, is a pediatrician as well as the former president and CEO of the nonprofit Institute for Healthcare Improvement, and a former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Calling for bold progressive leadership, Berwick said that Massachusetts needs universal pre-K that offers outreach and support to families, particularly families under stress.
He called on Massachusetts to consider Scotland’s Early Years Collaborative, a coalition of “Community Planning Partners” (including social services, health, education, and police) who ensure that children and families have access to high-quality support services.
To improve prospects for early educators, Berwick would reinvest in Massachusetts’ higher education system, which he called a “gem” and an on-ramp to success.
Berwick also called for lowering healthcare costs and using these savings to help fund early education and care. Doctors should focus on primary care and prevention to improve the well-being of the population, he said, adding that single payer “Medicare for all” is the single best step for Massachusetts.
Berwick is also against casinos, arguing that they will create another mental health burden for the state.
His favorite children’s book: “Goodnight Moon,” by Margaret Wise Brown, which Berwick says he can recite from memory.
“We have to provide equal education for every child,” Coakley said, reflecting on the fact that this year is the 60th anniversary of Brown v. the Board of Education, the historic Supreme Court case that ended school desegregation.
Coakley, the Attorney General of Massachusetts and a democrat, added that the United States is one of the few western countries that has not undertaken the serious job of providing safe, affordable child care.
She pointed to the 15,000 Massachusetts families receiving transitional assistance who might lose their child care vouchers if parents get jobs.
She also said that “siloed” state agencies should work together to serve families’ needs.
Given that the median salary for early educators is a mere $25,000, what should it be increased to? Coakley was the only candidate who answered with a specific number: $35,000, based on workers’ educational attainment. She also called for “pathways” to student loan forgiveness for individuals who were willing to commit to teaching for five years.
Looking at the education system as a whole, Coakley said Massachusetts should step out of the 18th century: explaining that the school year should not be based on family vacations or the needs of a long-ago agricultural society. Newer states look at different structures for the academic year, and Massachusetts should, too.
Her favorite children’s book: “The Sneetches and Other Stories,” by Dr. Seuss.
“I believe everyone is equal,” Falchuk said, adding, however, that, “As I’ve been across the commonwealth, I see so many contradictions.”
Among the contradictions: millions of dollars in tax breaks to companies, while 40,000 children remain on the wait list for early education and care, and 65 percent of low income children cannot read proficiently by third grade. In addition, Falchuk said, so many of the communities that face these problems are communities of color.
Falchuk is the United Independent Party candidate and the former president of Best Doctors, a company that links patients around the world to medical experts.
A key problem for Massachusetts is its high cost of living, which, Falchuk said, is driven in part by high housing and healthcare costs. He called for stopping hospital mergers, which he said drive up costs.
As for expanding access to early education, Falchuk says that the money is there. Or it would be if Massachusetts stopped giving huge tax breaks to companies that would be fine without them.
He pointed to a recent report from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center that analyzes the cost of three different approaches to expansion that the state could consider. He also faulted for Massachusetts for failing to conduct timely reviews of the Chapter 70 funding formula, which determines how much state aid goes to local school districts.
Falchuk said Massachusetts could look to its own successful models for engaging children in the arts and creative thinking, and he pointed to Lawrence as an example.
As governor, Falchuk’s first calls would be to the Speaker of the House and the Senate President to build consensus on key issues.
Our policymakers, don’t live up to our ideals, he added, asking is Massachusetts just a place or does it also have meaning and purpose.
His favorite children’s book: “Strega Nona” by Tomie dePaola.
“My plan is to bring jobs here as Governor Scott Walker did in Wisconsin,” Fisher said. He recalled President John F. Kennedy saying, “a rising tide lifts all boats,” and said as governor of Massachusetts, he would create the tide that lifts all boats and pays for early education and care.
Fisher, a republican, is the owner of Merchant’s Fabrication, a metal manufacturing facility in Auburn, Ma.
The need for early education is a personal issue for Fisher who said that his mother only went to school through the second grade and cannot read or write well today.
Fisher called for selling early education to parents as well as using rental subsidies to help the roughly 1,700 homeless families living in hotels so that their children can have better home environments to learn in.
Asked about the summer learning loss that happens to some students, Fisher suggested reinforcing school learning with a summer job that reinforces skills. The challenge, he said, is to reduce the rules and regulations that make it hard to legally hire teenagers.
Fisher says he is for universal kindergarten, but he would make it an option rather than imposing it on parents. And he is against casinos because he says they will pull money away from the state lottery, which would hurt education funding.
His favorite children’s books: “Goodnight Moon,” by Margaret Wise Brown, and “T’was the Night Before Christmas,” by Clement Clarke Moore, because the main character gets away with being overweight and smoking a pipe, and hasn’t been banned in Boston.
“I want to start with the word ‘poverty,’” Grossman said. “I think the word poverty is critical.” He said that children need better healthcare and nutrition and strong literacy programs so that they are ready for kindergarten.
A democrat and the state treasurer of Massachusetts, Grossman drove home the point that there aren’t enough tax dollars to pay for all the early education reforms that the candidates discussed.
“How do you pay for it?” he asked, saying the public debate has to cover resources and revenues and consider whether Massachusetts should raise taxes, shift money from other programs, form more public-private partnerships, or have single-payer health insurance. He also said the state could control healthcare costs by making sure that its community hospitals are strong.
Grossman asked how many people in the audience were read to as children or currently read to their own children, and he made the case that that universal pre-K is built on what goes on in families from birth to the time children are 3 years old.
Grossman praised Everett’s universal pre-K program, telling the story of an excited 4-year-old boy in one of the city’s pre-K classrooms who said that while he had never eaten a lobster, his favorite word was, nonetheless, lobster.
The state’s goal should be to ensure that every early educator has a bachelor’s degree or higher, Grossman said. Otherwise the inequities among early educators could translate into poor results for children.
Ultimately, Grossman said, the state needs a long-term, multi-year strategy for early education and care that has the support of the public and the Legislature.
We have to revolutionize how we do budgets, Grossman said. The next governor should come out of his or her office and have a public conversation about public spending in a collegial and collaborative way so that the fiscal year 2016 budget is a consensus.
His favorite children’s book: “Goodnight Moon,” by Margaret Wise Brown
“Access to quality education is the foundation of our democracy,” Kayyem said.
A democrat, former civil rights attorney, and Governor Deval Patrick’s homeland security advisor, Kayyem said that Massachusetts should anticipate, plan, and prepare to meet the needs of its youngest children.
Kayyem called for shifting money away from the criminal justice system and into early education. She would also like to see more bilingual services and more support for immigrants.
She would close the opportunity and achievement gaps by addressing inequities in jobs and transportation and by working to improve student attendance. She calls for looking at strong models of early education and care, while remaining aware that what works in Worcester may not be suitable for New Bedford or Boston.
As for saving money by lowering healthcare costs, Kayyem reminded the audience that the next governor won’t be able to institute single-payer healthcare on their first day in office. Instead, Massachusetts should focus more on public health programs that create a new generation of residents who eat better and get more exercise. The state will save money, she said, by lowering rates of diabetes, obesity, and substance abuse.
Massachusetts has to invest in pre-K or it will fall behind other states, Kayyem said. As governor, she would make the “big ask” on early education, engaging Beacon Hill, communities, mayors, teachers, schools, nonprofits, and public/private partnerships.
Her favorite children’s book: “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein
“I am really interested in creating jobs,” McCormick said, adding that poverty drove his focus on jobs.
McCormick is an independent and a businessman who founded Saturn Partners, which grows and launches companies.
Citing the classic quote that, “education is the great equalizer,” McCormick said that society has to be willing to make a long-term investment in education, adding that this is the right thing to do whether you look at it through a moral lens or an economic one.
Early childhood education is a silver bullet, McCormick said, and there are a lot of good ways to implement it. Education officials need the room to try programs, assess them, make mistakes, and opt for best practices.
He pointed to Community Teamwork, a community action agency in Lowell, noting that its early education program had faced federal budget cuts, and saying that it didn’t make sense to cut a program that would make it easier for parents to hold jobs.
“We’ve got to provide incentives for people to work.”
McCormick called for the bold, innovative use of technology to accomplish some of the state’s education goals. To prevent summertime loss in learning, he suggested using technology to have students work on math during the summer. He also called for summer jobs for teenagers to keep them moving forward, so that they don’t take steps back. He called for a proactive approach to mental health services saying that Massachusetts has to invest in its future.
His favorite children’s book: “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein