- Associated Press - Thursday, March 5, 2015

BOSTON (AP) - Republican Gov. Charlie Baker is coming under fire from education advocates who say he missed an opportunity in his first state budget proposal to signal his commitment to early education.

During last year’s campaign for governor, Baker decided not to back Democrat Martha Coakley’s pledge to eliminate a waiting list of 17,000 children seeking subsidized pre-kindergarten education, arguing state education priorities shouldn’t focus just on early education.

Baker has pushed back against his critics, arguing his proposal to consolidate nearly a dozen grant programs into one program will create support for underperforming schools.

He said Thursday his budget also would increase state education aid to cities and towns by $105 million, or about an extra $20 per student. His plan also calls for an extra $1.5 million to improve early education and care licensing.

Baker said local early education programs also will benefit from a federal grant that is “going to make it possible for them to expand early childhood education in a number of urban communities.”

He was referring to a federal preschool development grant aimed at expanding preschool programs in Massachusetts. The U.S. Department of Education announced last year that Massachusetts will receive $15 million in the first year, with the grant totaling $60 million over four years. The grants benefit Boston, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell and Springfield.

Early education advocates and teachers say Baker’s budget still doesn’t go far enough.

Put Massachusetts Kids First, a coalition of two dozen early childhood education organizations and out-of-school programs including the Massachusetts Association of YMCAs and Catholic Charities, said they’re concerned about Baker’s educational priorities.

The group said low salaries have led to a high turnover rate in early education programs. It said state spending on early education and care has dropped by $114 million during the past 15 years.

“It’s time early education and out-of-school programs are recognized as essential elements of the education system,” the coalition said in a statement. “They are not extras, or optional.”

Massachusetts Fair Share, a statewide advocacy group, said the state could afford to spend more on early childhood education if it cracked down on corporate tax loopholes.

Massachusetts Teachers Association president Barbara Madeloni also pointed to Baker’s proposal to eliminate funding for a kindergarten expansion grant program, which had been funded at $18.5 million in the current fiscal year.

“This step would hinder expansion of full-day kindergarten programs and cause some districts to reduce access,” Madeloni said.

Baker has said the budget cuts are needed to close an estimated $1.8 billion budget gap.

Not all education advocates are opposed to Baker’s plan.

The Building on What Works Coalition, which includes Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll and Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong, applauded Baker’s proposal to consolidate state grant programs. They said the new competitive fund would encourage communities to increase access to early learning programs.

Also Thursday, the Baker administration detailed a series of steps it proposed to trim Medicaid spending by $761 million.

About 60 percent of those savings, officials said, would be achieved by rolling over provider payments that would otherwise be on the books for next year into the subsequent fiscal year while the administration explores long-term structural changes in Medicaid, the government-run health insurance program for poor and disabled people.

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders and other state officials said at a briefing Thursday that rolling over payments has been a common accounting practice for more than a decade but they hope to curtail it.

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Associated Press writer Bob Salsberg contributed to this report.

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