A Right to Education for All: Delivering a Quality Education for Every Child from Birth to Adulthood
"My grandfather used to say, 'Education doesn’t cost, it pays.' A Republican who was no fan of tax increases, he always fought to invest in education."
In Massachusetts we know the power of a high-quality education. No matter what we look like, where we live, or what’s in our wallets, most of us know that when our schools inspire imagination and cultivate critical thinking, they can help our children live fulfilling lives.
Today our state is known for our education system. We boast the nation’s top K-12 test scores along with the world’s top universities. That education system is also the engine that powers our state’s continued economic growth.
But beneath the surface it’s also clear that only some students, from some communities, are given the chance to succeed in our current system. Poor kids and kids of color continue to face underfunded classrooms and yawning opportunity and achievement gaps due to long-standing inequalities. At the same time, too many working families can’t afford early child care when they need it, and students are saddled with decades of debt after they work hard to earn their degree.
It’s time to make good on our core values, truly address systemic inequities in our education system, and give every child the chance to reach their dreams regardless of income, race, or zip code.
While our state has made a significant commitment to addressing inequities in our K-12 system in 2019 with the passing of the Student Opportunity Act, truly delivering on this promise means tackling the persistent, structural problems at every stage from birth into adulthood.
We must pursue bold solutions that meet both the moral and economic imperatives of the 21st century. Our next governor should:
Establish a universal system of high-quality, accessible, and affordable early education and child care for all young children and their families.
Fully implement the Student Opportunity Act and partner with schools to support implementation of best practices to:
Close the K-12 opportunity and achievement gaps in our state
Increase the availability of behavioral health services in schools
Increase racial and ethnic diversity in our teaching and school administrator workforce, and
Dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline
Ensure all state residents can attend any Massachusetts public school of higher education debt-free and are supported in completing their degree in a reasonable amount of time.
Early Education and Care
To invest in our youngest learners is to invest in both our present and our future: every $1 spent on early education and care will yield up to $12 in returns in the years to come. Low-income children who receive high-quality early education and care are 40% less likely to require special education or be held back a grade, 30% more likely to graduate from high school, and nearly twice as likely to go to college. And, children in early education and care programs have better health outcomes, and they are more likely to become part of the well-educated workforce that our state depends on.
Affordable, accessible child care is also a critical piece of infrastructure undergirding our economy, making it possible for caregivers of young children to enter or return to the workforce.
But right now, the high cost and shrinking availability of child care means this pathway to well-being and success remains out of reach for too many families. The average annual cost of infant care in Massachusetts is a nation-leading $20,000, more than some families will pay for a year of college. Over 11,000 high-need children are languishing on waitlists for subsidized preschool. And even those who can afford it often struggle to find a provider. Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, over half of all people in Massachusetts lived in child care “deserts,” defined as a community with more than three children for each available child care slot. The closures of child care programs during the pandemic — more than one out of six as of February 2021 — has only exacerbated this problem.
These kinds of numbers demand bold solutions.
Our next governor must establish a universal system of high-quality, accessible, and affordable early education and child care for all young children from birth until K-12 enrollment:
Increase state subsidies for child care starting at birth so that no family pays more than 7% of their total household income for child care — and lower-income families pay even less. The Common Start Bill, which I am proud to co-sponsor, provides a roadmap for increasing public investment in early education and care incrementally over time, prioritizing the lowest-income, highest-need families.
Pass and implement legislation to establish a universal, single-payer preschool system, modeled after Universal Preschool legislation I have filed since 2015. Under this plan, parents/guardians of any child aged 3 or 4 could enroll their child in a publicly funded preschool program. These programs could be in a variety of settings, such as a child care center, a family child care provider, or a public school, as long as they meet minimum quality requirements. This legislation would prioritize our highest-needs areas for expansion efforts while preserving families’ ability to choose the settings that work best for them. It would also help our state catch up with the many other states that are already providing universal or universal eligible pre-kindergarten for 4 year olds, including Florida, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin.
Increase the quality of early education services by raising early educator salaries to be in line with their peers in K-12 settings, increasing professional development opportunities and aligning preschool and K-12 curricula. Our early educators, who are largely female, Black, and brown, make on average about $30,000 per year — wages that in many cases qualify them for poverty assistance programs — leading to high turnover rates and workforce shortages. High turnover rates have a direct impact on the quality of care children receive, and have been linked to weakened language and social development in children.
Partner with our Congressional delegation to secure federal funding support, which is critical for ramping up to a truly-universal system, and prioritize funding for all of these efforts in their annual budget proposals.
Better leverage the Early Education and Care Public Private Trust Fund, bringing foundation and business leaders to the table to invigorate this public-private partnership with the goal of improving quality, expanding access, and supporting long-term financial sustainability of the early education sector. For example, this fund could support development of shared “back office” services (e.g. human resources or billing) for smaller providers, catalyze innovation to improve two-generation models to support both parents and their kids, or create centers of excellence at select community colleges to train our next generation of providers and connect them to employment pipelines.
Massachusetts often leads the nation in our K-12 education outcomes when scores are averaged across high- and low-income districts. But when you look beneath the surface, it's clear that these statewide averages don’t show the whole picture, and too many children are being left behind. We’ve begun closing these disparities, thanks in large part to the years-long work of designing and passing the landmark Student Opportunity Act — from the bipartisan Foundation Budget Review Commission, which I was proud to co-chair in 2014, to the statewide coalition that won passage of all of the Commission’s recommendations into law with the Student Opportunity Act in 2019. But much work remains:
Yawning gaps in educational outcomes remain between the wealthy and poor, and between white students and students of color. Less than 30% of Black and Latino 4th graders are reading at grade level, half the rate for white students. And only 28% of low-income 8th graders are at grade level in math — again, about half the rate for higher income students. These numbers underscore what we already know: that too many kids aren't receiving the quality education that our Constitution promises, with devastating consequences for them and our state as a whole.
Racial disparities in school discipline mean that too often Black and brown children are excluded from school at higher rates for the same behavior as their white counterparts. One recent study showed that Black girls in our state are almost four times as likely to be disciplined as their white counterparts, putting us in a worse position than the state of Alabama. When students are excluded from school, they are more likely to disengage and drop out, leading to worse job prospects and higher dependence on public assistance programs.
Insufficient support for behavioral health services means that too many children attend schools where guidance and support staff — such as school social workers and psychologists — are stretched thin, if they are available at all. Statewide, the average ratio between students and behavioral health staff is double what’s recommended by experts. And our highest-need districts have it worse, with average student-to-support-personnel ratios of over 600:1. These critical professionals ensure students get the support they need to be successful in school and beyond, and the trauma caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial reckoning that began in 2020 means students need them now more than ever.
Representation and shared experience matter, and the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in our teaching and school administrator workforce is holding too many students back. Research shows that all students benefit from being taught by teachers of color, with especially pronounced benefits for students of color, including improved academic performance and higher graduation and college attendance rates. For example, for low-income Black boys, having just one Black teacher between third through fifth grades can reduce their chances of dropping out by 39 percent. Despite these positive benefits, the teacher workforce remains overwhelmingly white. In Massachusetts, while 40% of students are students of color, only 10% of educators identify as a person of color. The gap is more pronounced in districts with high percentages of students of color.
Declining enrollment in small rural districts, while it is largely happening in central and western Massachusetts, should concern us all. Towns are strapped to pay for the education of a smaller group of children, who lack access to opportunities larger districts can offer. The Student Opportunity Act created a commission to do a deep dive on these challenges, and yet Governor Baker again kicked the can down the road, neglecting to even make his appointments to the commission until months after its work was supposed to have been completed. The solutions are not simple, and everything should be on the table — from sparsity aid to address the increased fixed costs of rural districts, to incentives for inter-district collaboration and regionalization, to reforms to the school transportation market, to increasing access to virtual education — and state government should work with stakeholders in our rural districts to address this problem head-on.
We have work to do to become a state that taps all our population’s talent and provides a 21st century education to all students, no matter their zip code.
Our next governor must take action to close the opportunity and achievement gaps in our state, dramatically increase the availability of behavioral health services, increase racial and ethnic diversity in our teaching and school administrator workforce and dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline:
Fully implement the Student Opportunity Act (SOA) — and veto any annual budget that does not phase it in on schedule. The SOA, which I fought to pass alongside a diverse coalition of students, parents, educators, data experts, business leaders, and policymakers from across the state, provides for $1.5 billion in new state K-12 funding annually to ensure all students have the resources they need for a quality education, especially in our poorest, most underfunded communities — but only if it’s fully implemented. The current administration continues to delay implementing these landmark reforms, with budget proposals that put low-income families at the back of the line and consistently ignore the funding increases required by the new law. Full implementation of the SOA should be one of the top priorities for the Governor.
Direct state K-12 education officials to work in partnership with districts to identify, celebrate and implement best practices using SOA funding. Our schools face significant challenges, and they shouldn’t have to do that work alone or be asked to reinvent the wheel. School leaders across the Commonwealth are currently implementing innovative and effective practices — and yet the state infrastructure to help schools evaluate what is and is not working, share successes, and support implementation of best practices is woefully insufficient. For school districts in need of more support, the state should also offer resources and support before the districts reach the point of needing state intervention — moving us away from the current system that makes schools suffer increasingly worse outcomes before they get the support that they and their students need.
Significantly expand state efforts to reduce racial disparities in school discipline rates and ensure safe and supportive schools for all students in Massachusetts. Exclusionary discipline is harmful to students and does not lead to safer schools or positive behavior change — and yet these practices are still used far too often, especially for Black and brown children. At the same time, emerging research suggests that alternative practices, such as positive behavioral supports and restorative justice approaches, are effective and cost efficient. Two laws passed by the Legislature in recent years to reform school discipline law and create safe and supportive schools have set the framework for tackling these challenges, but adoption of new practices has been inconsistent across the state and the Baker administration has failed to prioritize implementation. The governor must ensure these efforts get the staffing and focus they require. It is crucial work, and we have no more time to waste. The Legislature should also pass legislation I’ve filed to institute a minimum ratio between school resource officers and school social workers and prioritize staff that have the skills to support students’ emotional, mental, and physical health.
Launch a statewide, data-driven dropout prevention program, modeled on legislation I have filed for several years. Our next Governor should mobilize the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to work with all schools to create an early warning indicator system to identify students who are at risk of disengaging from school, and support schools in implementing dropout prevention best practices, such as matching students with graduation coaches who can provide advice and intervention services and expanding hybrid and digital learning offerings that might help students at risk overcome specific barriers to in-person schooling.
Support schools to expand behavioral health services. Children are significantly more likely to access behavioral health services if they are provided at school, and yet too many schools do not have the resources and capacity to offer them. While the SOA will ensure schools have more funding to hire behavioral health staff, many will need help with effective implementation. Our next Governor should establish an Inter-Agency Council on School-Based Behavioral Health, pulling in resources and expertise from across state agencies, school districts, and our state university system, among others, to coordinate state services, identify mechanisms for expanding funding streams (such as streamlining billing through MassHealth and private insurance for some services and redirecting those funds back to school systems to pay for behavioral health staff), support workforce development, and provide schools with the guidance and technical assistance to expand these services.
Prioritize efforts to attract and retain teachers and administrators of color. Diversifying our teacher and school administrator workforce is a crucial component to closing achievement and opportunity gaps and keeping kids engaged and enrolled in school. We must take decisive steps to proactively grow the pipeline of diverse educators by supporting targeted recruitment efforts in communities underrepresented in the teacher workforce, reducing financial hardships for prospective and early-career teachers, and ensuring that prospective teachers can choose from varied high-quality pathways that meet their needs. In addition to dismantling barriers to entry for prospective teachers of color, we must also address the heightened challenges they can face while on the job.
Massachusetts has historically touted one of the most highly educated workforces in the nation, with benefits for many families and our economy. But this is a competitive advantage that takes stewardship to maintain.
Our economy thrives on our educated workforce, and working families thrive when they have access to good-paying jobs, which increasingly require education or training beyond a high school degree. Our public higher education system is pivotal to the success of our state, but years of disinvestment in the system threatens the futures of young people, working families, and our economy:
To make up the gap, state colleges and universities have raised tuition and fees to cover costs — meaning that students and working families have increasingly taken on crushing debt to make up the difference, or foregone higher education altogether, while businesses are left scrambling for talent.
As a result, Massachusetts currently has one of the fastest growing higher education debt burdens in the country. Worse still, graduates of public higher education institutions in Massachusetts — who are disproportionately low-income students and students of color — are more likely to take on debt, and in higher amounts, than if they went to a private college.
Low completion rates mean that too many students end their studies before receiving a degree, with only debt to show for their time. Just under 40% of first-time students in MA earn their first undergraduate degree or certificate within six years of enrolling in a two-year community college. And, while completion rates for students beginning a public 4-year program are higher, there is a significant gap by race: nearly 1/4 of Black or Latino students who start won’t complete their degree within six years.
In a state with a higher-than-average number of jobs that require a post-secondary degree, we put students and our economy in a precarious position if we make higher education inaccessible and unaffordable.
To maintain our advantage as a highly educated state, and to support young people, working families, and our economy, we must make bold investments in our public higher education system.
Our next Governor should work to ensure all Massachusetts residents can attend any Massachusetts public community college, state college or university debt-free and are supported in completing their degree in a reasonable amount of time:
Pass and implement legislation to guarantee debt-free public higher education for all Bay State students. An Act to Guarantee Debt-Free Public Higher Education, of which I’m a proud co-sponsor, creates a framework for achieving this by creating a grant program to pay the equivalent of tuition and mandatory fees to an eligible student at any Massachusetts public college or university, including community colleges, as well as certificate, vocational, or training program at a public institution. Under this model, funding for additional costs (such as room & board and books) would also be provided for students who meet the income eligibility for Federal Pell Grants.
Partner with our Congressional delegation to secure federal funding support, including passing the federal Debt-Free College Act and doubling Pell Grant aid.
Pass and implement legislation, modeled on legislation I’ve sponsored in the State Senate for over a decade, to ensure that undocumented immigrants who already reside in Massachusetts, pay Massachusetts taxes, and attend Massachusetts high schools are eligible for in-state tuition rates and all of the above benefits.
Take action to slow the increase in the cost of higher education and increase degree completion rates in Massachusetts by requiring public colleges and universities to maintain the same tuition and fees for the duration of a student's continuous enrollment, so that students and families can know at the outset what their college costs will be, and plan accordingly. We will also require public higher education institutions to end the practice of withholding transcripts from students with an outstanding balance, a practice that makes it more difficult for students to complete their degree if they transfer schools.
Increase the academic, social, and financial support community colleges provide to incoming students to improve completion rates. Using the highly successful ASAP program implemented by the CUNY system as a model, community colleges would provide enhanced, individualized course selection and career development support, along with the increased financial support outlined above, to incoming students at risk of not completing their associate’s degree within three years. Students in the CUNY ASAP program have graduation rates that are more than three times the national three-year graduation rate for urban community colleges.