This is a guest post from Ben Railton, Associate Professor of English and American Studies at Fitchburg State University. He is the author most recently of "The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us about America: (Palgrave Pivot, 2013), and maintains the daily AmericanStudies blog.
Much was made of the fall 2013 report that Massachusetts students ranked first in the nation in standardized test results for various core subjects. While those results are certainly impressive, they also serve to mask real educational deficiencies in the Commonwealth -- areas where Massachusetts in fact lags far behind many other states. More exactly, the performance of Massachusetts students in wealthier schools and districts drives much of the quantitative success on standardized tests and our high test scores in K-12 contrasts mightily with the relative paucity of state funding and support for education in the early years and post-high school.
So if I could pose one question to the 2014 gubernatorial candidates, it would be this: what will you do to address the significant gaps in state funding and support for public education, especially the current lack of support for both early childhood and higher education in the state?
Over at least the last half-decade, Massachusetts has consistently ranked at or near 37th in the state’s share of education funding. Moreover, the problem is even more significant when we address higher and early childhood education specifically. Between 2001 and 2013, Massachusetts has cut state support for higher education by 31%, more than all but six other states. My own ostensibly public institution, Fitchburg State University, currently receives less than 30% of its annual budget from state appropriations. And when we do not fund our state universities we are indebting ourselves as “72% of all students who graduate from Massachusetts public institutions in 2008 stayed in the state the next year while only 47% of private school students stayed in Massachusetts.”
The gap in early childhood education funding is harder to quantify, in no small measure because the state (like most, unfortunately) offers few mechanisms for such support at all. There are some ways to gauge the state’s commitment to this vital educational stage, however; for example, an analysis of the Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) initiative reveals that Massachusetts currently ranks in the middle of the pack (between 20th and 28th) in both access to and resources for UPK for its residents.
New England’s own John Dewey, one of America’s most prominent and eloquent supporters of public education, argued that at its best a school offers “embryonic community life.” Finding ways to help give as many Massachusetts students as possible affordable access to such environments, from their earliest stages through their young adulthood, will be a vital tool through which to strengthen our community and future.
So will our gubernatorial candidates pledge to address these shortcomings in funding and support, with meaningful initiatives and budgets? Are they committed to strengthening public education in Massachusetts, at every level?