Labeling his proposal Round II of education reform, House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran
yesterday called for mandatory full-day kindergarten and preschool for every city and town
In making his third annual State of the State speech on Beacon Hill,
the Mattapan Democrat said the program would have to be phased in because of its enormity
and would begin in communities that scored lowest on the recently administered
Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test, particularly urban areas.
Finneran said preliminary estimates put the price tag at about $100
million annually, not including the construction of more schools to make room for the
toddlers, but Governor Paul Cellucci predicted the proposal would be vastly more costly
and was skeptical of its financial feasibility.
"Until we've finished fully funding the 1993 law [on education
reform] I don't want to commit ourselves to spending a lot more money," Cellucci
To pay for the plan, Finneran said the state would have to squeeze
money from other parts of the budget. But he also said government must change the way it
does business, to save on its bottom line.
"The cost of such a proposal is going to be substantial and will
be a challenge to meet," the speaker said in his 45-minute speech in the House
chamber. "Even its most ardent proponents ... will ask how can we afford it? How can
we commit to such a bold and dramatic initiative?"
Finneran said one nuts-and-bolts reform would be to switch to a
two-year budget instead of an annual appropriations bill as a means of imposing fiscal
discipline on the Legislature.
"A two-year budget requires very careful planning,"
Finneran said to a surprised House. "It will help us think in a generational
Michael Widmer, executive director of the Massachusetts Taxpayers
Foundation, a fiscal watchdog group, said a two-year budget has merit, including a
time-saving component that would allow lawmakers to take up other issues.
"With the annual budget process, agencies tend to be funded at
last year's level plus a certain percentage increase," Widmer said. "When you're
looking out over two years you are likely to budget more conservatively because you have
even more uncertain revenue estimates and in that environment you're likely to have a more
focused discussion on where you want to put the additional money."
Cellucci said he liked the idea but would leave it to lawyers to
determine whether it would require a change to the state's constitution, which would be a
four-year process and require voter approval.
Finneran - the only speaker to make an annual State of the State
Address - outlined his agenda in a speech during which he repeatedly praised the House for
its work and focused on "generational" ideas, including a land preservation bank
similar to the one endorsed last year for Cape Cod.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association applauded Finneran's comments
on education, especially his calls for more parental involvement in their children's
"Parental concern cannot be legislated," MTA president
Stephen E. Gorrie said. "But the state and local governments can do more to foster
Gorrie also said full-day kindergarten, available in about 80 school
districts with another couple of dozen considering it, is in great demand. Only half-day
kindergarten is mandatory now.
But there are worries that preschool could be perceived as a
replacement for costly private day care.
"That's the danger," conceded interim state education
commissioner David Driscoll. "There is a day care element, but the focus should be on
Not everyone praised Finneran yesterday.
"A true generational legacy would
be a Commonwealth that inspires trust because it keeps its word to taxpayers ... [and
leaves] parents with enough of their own money to spend on their own kids," said
Barbara Anderson of Citizens for Limited Taxation.
Finneran has irritated a growing list of lawmakers for his tightening
control of the House. Last year, he was able to kill several key measures Senate President
Thomas F. Birmingham pushed.
The governor, Birmingham and Senate Minority Leader Brian Lees
ignored the speaker's invitation to attend the speech.
The House rank-and-file members also appear to be growing weary of
Finneran's dominating style.
A group of representatives met privately yesterday for about an hour
at the State House, apparently to examine legislative rules that could allow them to
weaken Finneran's power. However, few legislators would confirm that the meeting took
"We have allowed things to happen that probably ought not,"
said Representative James Marzilli (D-Arlington), who attended the meeting. Marzilli said
that he voted for Finneran as speaker but said "that doesn't mean I want him to make
all the decisions."