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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Almost ready

One of my favorite questions in a political context is: how are you going to pay for it. And it's the one question Gov. Deval Patrick has not answered as he rolls out his Readiness Project for improving education in Massachusetts.

The proposals, 18 months in the making, are grand indeed -- universal prekindergarten, full-day kindergarten for all students, and a drop-out prevention program. There's also talk of free tuition at community colleges and other expensive efforts to raise standards across the board so all schools deliver quality education.

Patrick says everything is on the table when it comes to financing his proposals -- and his special panel of educators, administrators, lawmakers, and public policy specialists will offer recommendations in November. But the lack of specifics has some school advocates annoyed. They feel 18 months is more than enough time to come up with the details.

Tom Scott - executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, a statewide advocacy group - pointed out that several organizations and even the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education have done reports on funding public education recently.

"There's a lot of good data out there; let's make this a more expedited process," he said. "We're at points of despair in some communities about meeting current needs."

Normally I would agree. And the Patrick administration has shown itself to be, um, shall we say deliberate, in putting meat on the bones of its proposals.

But this time deliberate is acceptable because of the great elephant in the room -- income tax repeal.

Massachusetts spends billions on education from local property tax receipts to Chapter 70 state funding for local schools and billions more on public higher education. And despite best intentions, the burdens and the results are unequal.

School systems such as Springfield and Lawrence depend heavily on the state because of their low property values. Rich communities are able to supplement with foundation budget with property taxes and deliver higher quality.

In one sense, income tax repeal could be the great equalizer -- putting Springfield and Weston on the same playing field with no state assistance and Proposition 2 1/2-capped property taxes that limit their ability to do anything more than buy pencils and paper (computers would be out of the question).

So in one sense, the decision to wait until November was a logical one. You can't price things out until you know what you have. And besides, the Legislature will be out for the year in another month.

But in a larger sense, the decision was a political one. By rolling this plan out now, Patrick offers a vision that few could argue with. And with the political campaign season getting underway in September, he spells out the stakes.

The repeal question will be on the same ballot as 200 separate races for the House and Senate. Turnout is expected to be massive with a presidential race that has captured the imagination at the top of the ticket.

Patrick and education supporters will never have a better chance to spell out their vision -- and the price that would be paid by repealing the income tax that now already pays for a large percentage of education costs in this state.

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