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Patrick seeks free two-year state colleges

Goal is key in 'cradle to career' plan

Governor Deval Patrick plans to unveil a proposal today to make Massachusetts' community colleges, among the priciest in the nation, free to all high school graduates in the state by the year 2015, according to documents obtained by the Globe.

The proposal is the centerpiece of Patrick's vision for a "cradle to career" education system that would dramatically expand the concept of public education in Massachusetts.

The plan, which he will outline during commencement at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, would also provide preschool for all children, extend the school day and year, and guarantee two years of community college paid for by the state.

But Patrick's ambitious plan includes neither price tags nor funding proposals as the state struggles financially. Instead, it calls for a commission that would be charged with transforming the plan into reality.

"We must create an integrated, comprehensive educational system that nurtures and develops students through each critical phase of development," says an outline of the plan obtained by the Globe. "In today's economy, a high school diploma is not enough."

Patrick's blueprint puts the state's 15 community colleges at center stage in a commonwealth where they are overshadowed by Harvard, MIT, and large public universities.

But educators and governor's aides, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the community colleges are key to galvanizing the state's economy, by educating struggling workers and students to fill empty jobs. At least 20,000 unfilled jobs in the state require a two-year degree, according to the plan.

Educators and others praised Patrick's vision yesterday, but many expressed skepticism about the state's ability to foot the bill, unless it sacrificed other services or increased revenues.

Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, estimated Patrick's plan for the community colleges alone would cost roughly $50 million to $75 million a year.

While the state could potentially make adjustments to cover that cost, he said, the entire plan would cost at least $1 billion a year.

"We can't do it either without making some tough choices or raising a broad-based tax or if we get major economic growth," said Widmer, adding that support for raising taxes appears weak.

"It's the right kind of priority, and it's a bold statement," he said. "But the tough decision of how to pay for it is unanswered."

School Superintendent Paul Ash of Lexington said he was worried about new initiatives while public schools are struggling to pay for existing services.

On Tuesday, Lexington voters will decide whether to approve a $3.98 million override for schools or face losing five of the six elementary school librarians and 37 staff members. Regardless, riding the school bus next year will cost $550 a student, up from $400.

"We're hemorrhaging," Ash said. "I suspect everything that he's recommending is needed. But my worry is that we're going to start funding new programs before we've adequately funded existing programs. . . .

"Unless this proposal significantly increases funding for K-12 schools, you're going to continue to have superintendents like me cutting programs and raising fees."

Others say the state must make the investment as jobs go unfilled or are shipped overseas to lower-paid, trained workers. They say more education could raise personal incomes, attract industry to the state, and boost tax revenues.

"It's bold but it's completely appropriate to be putting that on the table," said Christopher Anderson, a Romney appointee who chairs the Board of Education and is president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council. "The underpinning is our state's long term economic security."

Patrick's plan would be the first major education overhaul since the 1993 Education Reform Act pumped billions of dollars into schools to improve K-12 achievement.

Massachusetts is among the top in the nation on scores for the SAT and other national standardized tests. But in recent years the state's test scores have stagnated, and black, Hispanic, and low-income students lag behind white and Asian students.

Making community colleges free would set Massachusetts apart nationally. The American Association of Community Colleges, based in Washington, D.C., was unaware of a state that offers a free community college education.

"That's dramatic," said David Baime, vice president for government relations at the association. "It's just a recognition of the need for more participation in higher education and the central role community colleges play in offering that access."

Delaware and New Jersey reward good students with community college scholarships, and several governors have proposed expanding access.

In October, state higher education officials proposed giving Massachusetts high school students two years of free tuition and fees at community colleges if they took college preparatory classes and qualified for nonremedial college coursework.

The state's community colleges serve roughly 200,000 students, including students who are just taking classes and students who plan to earn a degree. From the grassy campus of Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill to the concrete landscapes in Boston, two-year colleges typically serve students who struggle financially or academically. They include immigrants learning a new language, budding nurses, and career changers working to acquire new skills.

Community colleges are more affordable than universities, but are still expensive for many students, averaging $3,477 a year. (The national average is $2,272).

But it is unclear if community colleges are prepared to absorb Patrick's vision in eight years. The campuses are often crowded, the colleges are considered underfunded, and many colleges struggle with criticism that some students take too long to graduate.

Aides to Patrick said the commission, called the Commission on the Future of Public Education in the Commonwealth, will work out the details, such as how to pay for the programs and whether to roll them out first in high-poverty communities.

Senator Robert A. Antonioni, cochairman of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Education, said he expected lawmakers would give Patrick's plan a fair hearing.

"I can say that those are all ideals or goals that I could support," he said. "One question that comes to mind is what sort of structure are you going to have to oversee all of this and number two, how do you pay for it?"