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After Failed Charter School Expansion, Baker Focuses On Small-Scale Education Initiatives

Gov. Charlie Baker (Charles Krupa/AP)
Gov. Charlie Baker (Charles Krupa/AP)

We have two stories examining education issues in the Massachusetts governor’s race. The other, focusing on challenger Jay Gonzalez, is here.

When Gov. Charlie Baker took office in 2015, he highlighted one big idea for public education.

“While traditional public schools will always be the backbone of our education, we need more high-performing public charter schools, especially in under-performing school districts,” Baker said in his inaugural address.

So when the prospect of more charter schools made the ballot in 2016, Baker went to bat for it. Baker aides Jim Conroy and Will Keyser ran the 2016 ballot campaign — the most expensive in state history. The governor himself spoke at rallies, and starred in a ubiquitous TV ad, asking people to vote yes.

But voters said “no” — by a 24-point margin.

Throughout the campaign, teachers unions had argued that poor school districts needed more state dollars, not more school choice.

“We are gonna go right out of the gate and say we want to fully fund our public schools that are already underfunded by a billion dollars a year. That’s where we’re going next,” Barbara Madeloni, then-president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), said at an election night rally.

The governor had swung for the fences and missed. Charter school supporters were devastated.

“The ballot question was a strategic blunder,” said Jim Stergios, executive director of the conservative think tank the Pioneer Institute. He said that defeat politicized charter schools, which achieve some of the state’s highest test scores, and that it limited Baker’s ability to force public schools to work smarter with the funding they already have.

“The administration put more money into the K-12 system, and that’s good. But oddly they didn’t leverage that additional money for any reforms,” said Stergios.

As he runs for reelection, Baker is not proposing any education policies as ambitious as charter expansion. In fact, he is touting what he calls a historic increase in state aid to school districts, totaling around $500 million.

It’s an unusual play for a fiscal conservative. And teachers unions aren’t satisfied.

“In Everett, they laid off a hundred teachers. Forty kids in a second-grade class. Thirty kids in a third-grade class,” said Merrie Najimy, the new president of the MTA. She said the Baker administration’s investment isn’t nearly enough to address a growing educational crisis in poor communities.

The MTA has endorsed Baker’s opponent, Democrat Jay Gonzalez — though Najimy said the union’s issue with the governor is ideological, not personal: “He appears to be a likable guy. But he does not have a bold vision,” she said, echoing a criticism often voiced by Gonzalez.

But Baker’s secretary of education, Jim Peyser, pushes back against critics who say the administration lacks big ideas. “Your only big idea is more money,” he said. “I don’t know what the big idea is there.”

The failed, hyper-partisan fight for more charter schools dominated the first two years of Baker’s term. But in the last two, the governor has turned his focus to smaller-scale initiatives that he hopes will end up making a big impact.

Under Baker, about 1,000 students at 17 high schools from Boston to Brockton are now getting an early start on college coursework in programs certified by the state.

Chris Gabrieli, chair of the state’s Board of Higher Education, called that initiative enormously promising. He noted it will take time to demonstrate whether those types of initiatives can deliver on a larger scale.

“Creative, new approaches start small, with getting the mechanics and the policies right,” Gabrieli said. “And then proving whether it’s effective for students.”

Baker also spent more than $50 million outfitting the state’s vocational schools to train students for the jobs of the future. Even some of the governor’s political opponents applaud that initiative.

Lew Finfer, a lifelong Democrat and community organizer, was one of the leading advocates for a so-called “millionaire’s tax” that might have raised $2 billion a year for education and transportation, before that was deemed unconstitutional by the state’s highest court and removed from this year’s ballot.

“The governor didn’t really take a position on the millionaire’s tax. He did appoint four of the five justices who ended up keeping it off the ballot,” Finfer said. “That was a huge blow.”

But Finfer does approve of Baker’s contributions to vocational education.

“He seems to be common-sense. He’s not an urban mechanic, like [late Boston Mayor Tom] Menino’s image, but it’s a bit like, ‘How can I be a mechanic to make state government work?”

Baker has taken a similar approach to higher education, too: $7 million to cover free community college for the neediest students. And a new program called the “Commonwealth Commitment” that can dramatically reduce the cost of a bachelor’s degree for students who go full-time, get good grades, and start their education at a community college.

“The fact that I don’t have to go into my pocket to buy textbooks is incredibly helpful,” UMass Amherst junior Kyle Dean said of the program. “It seems like a no-brainer once you know about it.”

But not that many people do know about it. Fewer than 400 students were enrolled in the commitment as of this spring — possibly because its requirements are arguably strict and confusing.

So in higher education as in K-12, there are some who accuse the governor of playing small ball. And activists like Zac Bears are pushing for tuition-free access to the state’s public colleges, where the sticker price just keeps rising.

“Governor Baker’s $7 million is about $900 million short of starting to solve this problem,” said Bears.

But Secretary Peyser defends the administration’s approach here too, saying they have had to learn to balance educational priorities just as they balance a budget.

“There’s a question about what’s the right investment for states to make. If you think the answer is that we need to sort of fully fund all public higher education, that means we’re gonna be doing less” on other initiatives, Peyser said.

The wreckage of the pro-charter campaign is in the rear view mirror. While Baker may not back big new investments in public education in a second term, his main message appears to be that he is going to try to make the right investments.

Editor’s note: Chris Gabrieli has provided some funding for Edify.

Copyright 2018 WBUR

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