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BOSTON (AP) — Democratic candidate for governor Martha Coakley says her plan to eliminate a waiting list of 17,000 children seeking state vouchers for pre-kindergarten programs would cost an estimated $150 million annually.
Coakley, who hadn't previously put a price tag on the plan, vowed to begin moving children off the waiting list and into pre-kindergarten programs during her first year in office. She made the promise during a campaign stop at an early childhood center in Lawrence on Tuesday.
Coakley said she would phase in the program over four years and would begin with children living in the state's older, financially strapped municipalities known as Gateway Cities. She pledged to eliminate the waiting list by the end of her first term, if elected.
"All children, regardless of where they live, deserve a fair shot to reach their potential, and that starts with offering universal access to early education," Coakley said in a statement.
Republicans say Coakley's plan falls short of her pledge to provide universal access to pre-kindergarten. They point to a study by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center that estimated it would cost about $1.5 billion to cover the annual cost of expanding public schools to offer universal pre-kindergarten for the state's 105,000 3- and 4-year-olds not currently receiving any public support for their early education.
"It is dishonest to promise parents a service for their children when she doesn't know how or even if she will be able to make that service a reality," state Republican Party Chair Kirsten Hughes said in a statement.
Coakley's campaign said Republicans and GOP candidate for governor Charlie Baker are "intentionally misleading" voters about the cost of her proposal by pointing to a study of a much broader program than what she is proposing. Coakley is defining universal pre-K as making it possible for every child to get into a program, either through vouchers or by paying privately.
An aide to Baker said he favors using pre-K programs in failing school systems on a targeted basis and as governor would also focus on improving the K-12 system so benefits from pre-K programs aren't lost in elementary school.
State lawmakers this year approved $15 million in additional funding for early education. That was considerably less than the $131 million Gov. Deval Patrick sought with the goal of eliminating the waiting list.
Coakley hasn't said specifically how she would pay for her program, but has said she would look to make state government more efficient and hasn't ruled out higher taxes as a last resort. She said the $150 million price tag is a relatively small portion of a $36 billion state budget.
Associated Press writer Bob Salsberg contributed to this report.
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