It wasn't the official kickoff of his campaign, but Boston Mayor Marty Walsh laid out an ambitious election year education agenda this week that could shed light on a forward-looking strategy for reelection. A common thread through the policy prescriptions Walsh introduced at Tuesday's State of the City address was that Boston needs to be more aggressive in getting funding from the state to pay for the city's priorities.
Much of what Walsh wants to accomplish for Boston Public Schools - a ten-year, $1 billion dollar rebuilding plan, free pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds and a massive restructuring of state education financing - will have to win approval on Beacon Hill before Boston students see any benefit.
Beacon Hill's top three policymakers, Gov. Charlie Baker, Senate President Stan Rosenberg and House Speaker Robert DeLeo all attended Walsh's speech and they hold the power over whether his proposals live or die in the upcoming legislative session.
"It's the first I've heard of some of them. And obviously, we'll take a good hard look at them and work collaboratively with the mayor's office and the Legislature on them, but until I understand more about the details, I don't want to speak to them beyond that," Baker said of Walsh's education plans after the speech.
The flashiest part of Walsh's proposal is to spend over $1 billion to modernize, refurbish and reconstruct Boston Public Schools' buildings.
"We will create high-quality 21st-century classrooms for every student, connected to every neighborhood, college, and workplace in our city," Walsh said in the speech Tuesday night at Symphony Hall.
To help pay for the massive undertaking, Walsh would lean on the Massachusetts School Building Authority, a well-funded quasi-public state authority that helps fund school building construction. Boston hasn't much engaged with the MSBA since it was created in 2004 and Walsh sees the next ten years as the time to take advantage of what the state offers.
Another eye-catching part of Walsh's speech was making pre-kindergarten available for all four-year-olds in Boston. To do this, City Hall wants to dip into Beacon Hill's favorite surplus fund, the extra dollars generated by tourism taxes and fees earmarked for the Convention Center Authority. Walsh wants the state to divert the amount generated in Boston itself to pay for pre-kindergarten classes for every tike in town.
"If you only took the tourism tax money that comes into Boston and redirected it to Boston that's probably a much easier play than trying to take all the tourism tax money from around the state and using it for Boston's own purposes," said Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a center-right think tank that's advocated for school spending reductions and the expansion of charter schools.
But the fact is Boston provides the lion's share of that tourism tax revenue," Stergios said.
Baker called the proposal "an interesting idea" that he'll have to take a look at. But the Legislature may be less kind to Walsh, given that he's trying to dedicate Boston's share of those Convention Center funds back to Boston itself, where it can't be used to bail out the rest of the state.
The surplus is useful. Lawmakers dipped into the same fund last year to help balance an out-of-whack budget. However, shifting the Boston-generated funds back to the city is within the realm of possibility.
"Will they want to lose the slush fund?" Stergios asked. "That one, probably with the right amount of activity on the hill, is a place they probably could get."
The biggest struggle for Walsh's education agenda on Beacon Hill will be restructuring how the state divvies up funding for local school districts. Keeping with the theme of getting Boston what he sees as its share of the tax revenue loot, Walsh wants to rewrite the law so that urban school districts like Boston get more funding to deal with the racial achievement gap, special needs and ESL learners. Walsh's administration says a formula rewrite could be worth $150 annually for Boston.
"I am committed to working with our partners on Beacon Hill to fix education funding formulas and getting every student on a pathway to success from pre-kindergarten through college and career," Walsh said in the speech. Earlier that day, City Hall described Massachusetts education funding mechanism as relying on "stagnant state education revenue," and states that Walsh's administration hopes to "redirect existing tax revenue produced in Boston back to its residents."
When it comes to redoing the funding formula, Walsh may find an ally in Rosenberg. The Senate passed a change to the Chapter 70 funding formula last year that also took on another of Walsh's ambitions: altering how charter schools are funded and overseen. The proposal was not taken up in by DeLeo's House and the bill died at the end of the legislative session.
As his education plan develops in the state's capital, Walsh can launch into his reelection campaign with a solid legislative agenda already in the works. But considering the speed at which Beacon Hill deals with the kinds of massive policy changes Walsh is asking for, Boston students won't see any of the spoils until well into Walsh's second term, should he win one in November.