Massachussetts has some of the best public schools in the country, but they’re not working for everyone. The state also has some of the country’s biggest achievement gaps for Latino students and poor children. Neither candidate for governor — incumbent Charlie Baker or his Democratic challenger Jay Gonzalez — has a plan that will fix persistent disparities in the state’s public schools.
“The candidates ought to be talking about what they’re going to do to make schools stronger and close deep persistent achievement gaps that result in lots of our children in the state being unprepared to enter the economy,” said Paul Reville, former state education secretary under Deval Patrick. “I think both candidates are over-focused on things that aren’t so important.”
The candidates take nearly opposite approaches to education. But after the bruising public debate in 2016 over expanding charter schools in the state, neither candidate is mentioning the words “charter school,” never mind a comprehensive plan to change the way kids are educated.
Baker, a Republican, has worked to increase the number of charter schools operating in the state.
“We’ve done very well with charter schools in Massachusetts. We have a waiting list,” Reville said. “So I fully understand why they felt that was a very important strategy.”
But the ballot initiative to expand the number of charter schools failed. After that, Baker has started a few small initiatives but hesitated to spend much more on education.
After almost four years in office, there are still wide gaps in test scores and graduation rates between Latino and white students and between low-income and higher-income students.
“This administration really hasn't come forward with a strong set of strategies designed to remedy some of those achievement gaps,” Reville said. “They've done some things, but not nearly as much as I would have hoped.”
People on the other side of the political spectrum have a similar complaint.
“They seem to be gun shy in terms of putting forward a large proposal that is comprehensive in nature,” said Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute. The Boston-based think tank pushes for access to good schools, a market approach to education, and frugal government.
In the past, lawmakers have offered more school funding in exchange for new ways of holding schools accountable. That trade-off led to the MCAS and the state’s accountability system. Lawmakers came up with a new way of funding schools so all cities could offer what the state considered an “adequate” education. In exchange, the state got new ways of monitoring the district’s success.
“What’s interesting to me is even as the Baker administration has put more money on the table — some would say modestly so — but when they put more money on the table, they’ve not seemed to have been asking for more reform,” Stergios said.
Under the pressure of the gubernatorial race, Baker is answering more questions about disparities in Massachusetts schools.
In the last month, Baker has been talking more about plans to address achievement gaps, but those statements aren't found on his website or in any campaign ad. During a WGBH debate last month, Baker said the state should help districts start "acceleration academies" and “help pay for them.”
Those are boot camps during vacation breaks for kids who are behind in math and English. Research does show that more time in class helps. He also mentioned encouraging districts to start enrichment programs after school.
Lately, Baker has also warmed to an idea that lawmakers have been pushing for a while: the state sending more money to schools that educate poor kids and children still learning English.
Gonzalez has supported recommendations to update the state’s formula for funding schools since he joined the race for governor.
“It’s not the whole equation, but a big part of it is adequately funding education,” he has said.
Gonzalez was the administration and finance secretary under Patrick, a Democrat. Much of Gonzalez's approach to education is giving more money to schools. He supported a bill that would have added $1.4 billion more for public schools.
But Gonzalez’s main platform for K-12 education is better preschool and daycare for low-income kids.
“This is the thing I think we can do … that can make the biggest difference in making sure they’re ready to learn when they get to school and helping them meet their full potential,” Gonzalez has said.
Research shows investing in high-quality early childcare and preschool has a long-term positive impact.
Gonzalez plans to build on the existing patchwork of mostly private daycare centers and preschools.
That’s not a way to deliver “high quality,” Stergios said. “There are a number of programs in Massachusetts that are really good. And there are a number that aren’t as good."
Gonzalez has said he would improve preschools by paying teachers more money.
His plan would likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars. He’d pay for it by taxing large college endowments and, later, levying a higher tax on millionaires. Even if he instituted these new taxes, it’s not clear they’d pay for everything he says he wants to do.
Reville praised Gonzalez for wanting to invest in early childhood education, but said the candidate is not proposing any meaningful change to the K-12 system.
“I think Jay’s taking the safe route on education,” Reville said. “He’s avoiding it because the Democrats themselves are divided within their own constituencies on matters of education.”
For instance, some Democrats support charter schools, and some don’t. “So candidates try and avoid that territory. You saw Hillary Clinton do it, and I would argue that Gonzalez is doing the same thing,” Reville said.
Neither candidate for governor, he said, has come forward with a comprehensive plan to address disparities that exist in schools right now.
Our coverage of K through 12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.