In governor’s race, stark differences on early, higher ed

Democrats favor expensive, transformative change

FOR SEVERAL YEARS,  the dominant conflict on Beacon Hill was how to update funding for the state’s K-12 schools. Now that a new formula is in place, the next battle lines are the rest of the education system: early education and higher education. 

The issue is expected to be front and center in the 2022 gubernatorial race, as the three Democrats are carving out progressive platforms that would infuse huge new public subsidies into the education systems while transforming how they operate.  

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz is releasing her position on education as her first official policy platform on Tuesday, and it illustrates what is likely to be a core conflict in the gubernatorial race. The Democrats – so far, Chang-Diaz, former state senator Ben Downing, and Harvard professor and political theorist Danielle Allen – are touting more transformative and expensive changes to the early education and higher education systems. Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration has focused largely on keeping the current system intact while making targeted investments to improve it and increase education access.  

The Democrats say they believe voters want full-scale reform, given the heft of the problems facing the state. “These are very large-scale problems, and they need solutions that scale to match,” Chang-Diaz said. “This plan that we’re laying out is intended to be bold, transformative change on the scale of the problem working families and our economies are experiencing.” 

One of the biggest reasons for the differences is in their respective approaches to revenue. The Democrats are all proposing major tax changes that would require wealthy individuals or institutions to pay more to fund an education expansion, while Baker has generally opposed increasing taxes and is committed to working with the money available through existing revenue streams.  

Baker has not said whether he will seek a third term, but, if not, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito will likely carry the administration’s record into her own campaign.  

Republican Geoff Diehl, who is already in the race, would move in the opposite direction of the Democrats, favoring more school choice, private options, and local control over government-centered programs, along with lower taxes. 

On early education, a coalition of advocates proposed a plan last February, the so-called Common Start bill, to provide universal, affordable early education by turning what is now largely a private pay system into one that is heavily publicly subsidized. The proposal would cost an estimated $5 billion to create a system of high-quality centers and well-paid providers where lower income families would get free childcare and no family would pay more than 7 percent of their income. 

All three Democrats have adopted the Common Start bill in their campaign platforms. 

Downing adopted the proposal as his campaign platform in July, when he made a childcare plan his third major policy platform. Downing said the coalition’s model addresses the major challenges in the system, by giving money to families, childcare programs, and educators themselves – creating a stable, predictable funding stream for programs while giving a livable wage to teachers. 

Allen said she was drawn to the plan because of its focus on improving the capacity and quality of early education programs by ensuring that educators are well-trained professionals. 

Chang-Diaz also adopts the Common Start bill to increase state subsidies for childcare.  

But in the long term, Chang-Diaz would also go even farther – trying to pass a separate bill that she has been championing for years that would create a universal, single-payer preschool system in which every family could choose to enroll their  3- or 4-year-old child in a publicly funded preschool program. This would be a far different system than the current one in which there are some subsidies available to low-income families, but childcare is largely delivered through a private system, with providers paid through parent tuition.  

Chang-Diaz said making the system more publicly funded acknowledges the public good provided by childcare. “Our economy rests on the strength and fragility of the early education and care system,” she said.  

The Baker administration has not tried to transform the private pay system, but has instead focused on helping providers who care for lower income children. Baker increased the rates the state pays providers who receive state subsidies to care for low-income and at-risk children. Between 2015 and 2019, Baker increased the amount paid to these providers by $127 million, with annual rate increases ranging from 3.5 percent to 8 percent. Through increasing rates to providers, the administration aims to improve the quality of programs and have them pay teachers more. Baker has also given out money through a grant program that funds renovations at childcare facilities serving primarily low-income children. 

A similar distinction exists in higher education. Chang-Diaz supports a bill that would make public higher education free for all Massachusetts residents, with additional money to cover fees for living and textbook expenses for low-income students. The bill would cost an estimated $2 billion, which Chang-Diaz has suggested can be paid for primarily by a tax on large college endowments.  

Chang-Diaz said she sees benefits to creating a universal, publicly funded system, rather than targeting aid to the neediest students. It is easier to administer, more durable, and creates a recognition that higher education is a public good that benefits society. “In our public education system, we acknowledge there are real benefits, philosophical and administrative, to universality,” she said.  

Allen would not go quite as far. Allen said she supports making higher education debt-free – which means anyone who needs financial aid to avoid having to borrow money would get it. But she would still collect tuition from those who can afford to pay. “I agree with the view that we should be subsidizing students who need the subsidy, but students who can afford to pay what should be lower tuition rates, we need that contribution,” Allen said. Allen supports the CHERISH Act, another bill that higher education advocates have been pushing that would significantly increase public funding of higher education. 

Downing said he supports first establishing debt-free college, then ultimately moving to free higher education funded by taxes. He would start with debt-free college to ensure everyone has access, knowing that both policies would take significant new investment.  

Baker and Polito have taken a more targeted approach to help the students most likely to struggle in college. They focused on expanding programs like early college, where students can take free classes for college credit while in high school, and on improving skills training programs that prepare students for careers in specific industries. They created a program where public colleges give a 10 percent tuition rebate for each completed semester to students who enroll in a community college, then transfer to a state university. The administration has upped funding for financial aid and designed grant programs for support systems that help students be successful in college, particularly community colleges. 

One major initiative that could potentially transform the system is around equity, where Baker administration officials have committed to overhauling state guidelines for the undergraduate experience, with an eye toward racial equity and improving college graduation rates among Black and Latinx students. But that project is still in the early stages. 

Any overhaul of the education system like the ones envisioned by the Democrats would cost billions of dollars, and the candidates have made some suggestions for how to pay for it. Generally, their idea would be to shift from a system of “user fees” – where the students or their family pays for the education – to one where taxpayers, primarily wealthier ones, shoulder the burden. 

“There’s no question the price tag overall is going to be in the billions,” Chang-Diaz said. “It’s important to remember that’s a price tag we’re already paying in Massachusetts. It’s just a question of who’s paying it.” 

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

All three Democrats support a constitutional amendment that would raise the tax rate on income over $1 million. Downing said in case the amendment does not pass, he will release a tax proposal similar to one made by Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick in 2014 that would increase the state income tax while raising the personal exemption and lowering the sales tax, to create a system in which richer taxpayers pay more. 

Baker and Diehl both generally oppose new taxes, though Baker has proposed or signed a few targeted tax and fee increases. Both Republicans oppose the millionaire’s tax.