Pushing education to the front of her gubernatorialcampaign’s agenda, Attorney General Martha Coakley on Thursday pledged to expand access to pre-kindergarten programs and eliminate the waitlist for early childhood education.
The policy goals are among a series of education initiatives she plans to roll out in the coming months. Coakley also prioritized giving school districts supports to expand and restructure the school day and year, and offering students in struggling districts “support counselors” to provide services that extend beyond the classroom.
“We know that every dollar we invest in this pays off and we know what works. We’ve seen the studies. Under a Coakley administration, this will be a top priority to make sure that every community in Massachusetts has the beginning education, the quality education through this structured day and school year if we need to do that to make sure our kids can compete globally,” Coakley said.
Coakley said she did not have an estimate on the cost of achieving her education goals, or a specific plan to pay for the investments, but said existing resources could be diverted from within the $34 billion state budget and revenues from economic growth could also help meet the need.
“I think there a probably some things in the state that we pay for that may not be as important . . . ,” Coakley said. Though she said she did not have examples, Coakley said, “We’ll figure out how we invest in our kids.”
Coakley, who is giving up her slot as attorney general to run for governor, discussed her education plans in the South End on Thursday after touring the Ellis Memorial Early Childhood Center where she read “The Mitten,” by Jan Brett, to a kindergarten class.
The themes touched on by Coakley, including closing the achievement gap and improving third grade literacy, are topics often discussed by education reform activists and Gov. Deval Patrick, and have proven to be nagging and persistent problems throughout his administration.
Coakley said Patrick has succeeded in making education a priority over the past seven years despite coming into office on the brink of a major recession that sapped state revenues and increased competition throughout government for limited dollars.
“I would give him a very good grade for keeping focus on this issue at a time when there were so many other demands on tax dollars,” she said.
While Patrick turned to taxes this past year when he needed to generate the additional revenue to finance his plans for education and transportation, Coakley said tax increases would be a last resort, and not something she believes is necessary.
“I think that’s the last place we need to go,” Coakley said, citing a rebounding economy and additional property taxes that will generate revenue for cities and towns as homes are taken out of foreclosure.
“I do believe this is an investment, a priority. I think most people in Massachusetts believe that, including our businesses, and we will find a way to
pay for this because it’s too important not to, and it’s too expensive not to, frankly.”
One area where Coakley does believe the state is spending too much money is in the prison system.
The Massachusetts Republican Party on Thursday ripped Coakley for comments she made this week at a Wellesley Democratic Town Committee meeting where, discussing areas the state could spend more effectively, said, “We spend a lot of money putting people in jail, by the way. So let’s start with the idea that we lost that war in many respects.” Coakley said money would be better spent on prevention, diversion and job training programs.
MassGOP Chair Kirsten Hughes called the comment “ludicrous” coming from the state’s top law enforcement officer. “It is clear from Coakley’s illegal campaign cash scandal she doesn’t have a firm grasp on the law, but it is just ludicrous for the state’s top cop to give up on her job; putting criminals behind bars,” she said in a statement. “Her rambling claim that releasing law breakers and giving them job training will finance her education plans is possibly the only thing more bizarre than an Attorney General giving up on putting people in jail in the first place.”
Asked about her comments on Thursday, Coakley did not back down. “I believe my comments at Wellesley were correct, and I frankly think that if Charlie Baker doesn’t agree with that then he’s on the wrong side of this issue,” she said, surfacing the name of a Republican candidate for governor.
Pointing out that non-violent criminals and drug dealers will eventually be released to the streets, Coakley questioned the “large, mandatory minimum sentences” imposed on drug offenders.
“For those non-violent offenders who, in some instances, we have been warehousing, we need to have a better solution. Instead of paying $40,000 or $50,000 a year, we should look at and we can look at and we will look early on in this administration at reallocating those dollars to those inmates or those with a record who want to get a GED, who want job training,” she said.
Coakley was less certain where she would land on proposed ballot questions that could coincide with her race for governor next year, such as proposals to repeal the state’s casino law and repeal the law indexing the gas tax to inflation. In her role as attorney general, Coakley approved the legality of the gas tax question, but disqualified the casino question. Proponents are appealing her decision to the Supreme Judicial Court.
As a voter and candidate for governor, however, Coakley said she had not yet made up her mind whether to support or oppose either question. One of her gubernatorial rivals, Dr. Donald Berwick, has endorsed the casino repeal effort, and restated the reasons for his opposition to expanded gaming on Thursday, including addiction, its impact on the Lottery and outside business interests with “questionable ethics.”
Coakley said casinos would not have been “the first place I would have gone for economic development.” She said she wanted to speak with the business community about the idea of indexing the gas tax to inflation.