There’s Nothing Wrong with Thinking Big

You have to give Gov. Deval Patrick some credit. He’s been thinking big lately. Make that very big.

Universal preschool. All-day kindergarten. Free community college tuition and fees. A longer school day and year. A $1 billion life sciences commitment. Extension of a commuter rail line to New Bedford. Property tax breaks for low- to moderate-income homeowners. And perhaps as many as 1,000 new police officers. These are all things he’s put on the table over the past several weeks.

And in doing so, he’s drawn loud applause from educators, the tech sector, public safety administrators, and other constituencies. He’s also spawned some serious skepticism among legislators, conservative think tanks, and political analysts who are wondering out loud just how in the world he’s going to pay for all this.

Indeed, the growing consensus seems to be that Patrick will get only a few, if any, of these proposals funded at a time when there is still a budget deficit, and the chances of the Legislature raising taxes are slim and none.

So it seems to many that Patrick is simply getting people’s hopes up for things that won’t be funded, thus setting himself up for a big political fall when he fails to convert on any of these commitments to the Commonwealth.

Maybe, maybe not.

It is our hope that the doubts — as well-founded as they may be — do not stifle the needed serious discussions on these matters that may eventually lead to some of them becoming reality. That’s because many of these proposals make a good deal of sense.

Start with universal preschool. This has long been touted as a necessary ingredient in the daunting task of re-energizing struggling urban centers in the state, including Springfield and Holyoke, and local economic development leaders have put early childhood education at the top of their priority list for the region. Study after study has shown that when children are exposed to a regimented learning environment early on, they are less likely to drop out of school later in life. These statistics are contrasted against the state’s dramatic drop in the rankings concerning the number of children enrolled in pre-kindergarten; the Commonwealth has slipped to roughly 10% of its 4-year-olds in pre-K, which is about half the national average.

The problem is, universal preschool is expensive — a projected $600 million annually. Also expensive is lengthening the school day and year — $1.3 billion per year, according to some estimates — and free tuition at community colleges, nearly $200 million annually.

But both steps would certainly help Massachusetts remain competitive with other states and other countries at a time of intense fighting for those good jobs at good wages that every municipal leader wants. Community colleges have long been touted as one of the state’s most effective economic development resources because they provide skills that are needed in a modern, technology-driven economy, and graduating students tend to stay in the market in which they were educated.

Community colleges are relatively inexpensive — only a few thousand dollars per semester — but they are still out of the reach of some people of limited means. Free tuition would provide access to a college education for greater numbers of Bay State residents, and thus create skilled employees for companies screaming for qualified help.

Other components of the Patrick agenda are equally worthwhile, especially the investment in life sciences, which many believe will be the proverbial ‘next big thing’ for the state’s economy. But all of them come with steep price tags, and lawmakers show no inclination to raise taxes or create new sources of revenue, such as legalized casino gambling.

Not long after Patrick unveiled his 10-year vision for education in the Commonwealth, something he called “cradle to career,” he likened skeptics of his plan to those who challenged President John F. Kennedy’s mission to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.

But the federal government backed up that bold pledge with what amounted to a blank check for NASA. Patrick won’t get a blank check, and he may not get any kind of check. But that shouldn’t stop him from thinking big — preferably, very big.-