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Legislators, activists advocate for increase in early education

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Legislators, activists advocate for increase in early education
Massachusetts Early Education and Care Commissioner Tom Weber and Lead Preschool Teacher Melanie Mathieu engage with children last week in the new preschool classroom at the YMCA of Greater Boston. The classroom is part of Boston Public Schools’ preschool expansion initiative and is funded through a $15 million federal Preschool Expansion Grant. (Photo: Courtesy of Mass. Early Education and Care Dept.)

Massachusetts may be a national leader in K–12 education, but it is falling behind in pre-kindergarten education, according to many of the education and children’s advocates, parents, officials and legislators who testified at a State House hearing last week.

The two dozen bills on the agenda for the Sept. 16 hearing of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Education address early education and care, kindergarten, learning time and extracurricular activities, but most of the testimony focused on access to and quality of pre-kindergarten programs.

“I know first hand that early education is critical,” said an East Boston mother of two daughters, one of whom missed out on preschool and another who was able to attend Head Start, where she mastered colors, letters and numbers and improved her English and behavior.

“I could see the difference,” the mother told the legislators, describing how her first daughter struggled with English and listening in school. “Please prioritize early education.”

A statewide crisis

Passionate testimony by Hubie Jones, founder of Massachusetts Advocates for Children, brought the issue’s urgency home in no uncertain terms.

“This is a huge statewide crisis that must be addressed now — and I underline, now,” Jones told committee members. “If not, the human and fiscal costs are too horrifying to contemplate.”

Jones spoke in favor of a bill, sponsored by Committee Co-Chair Rep. Alice Peisch of Wellesley and Sen. Sal DiDomenico of Everett, that would create a grant program for high-quality preschool implementation.

“Too many desperate parents settle for inadequate, substandard preschool programs. Demand for high-quality programs vastly outstrips supply,” Jones said. “The tragic outcomes for poor children in our state’s urban centers cry out for legislative action.”

Jones mentioned research that has shown dramatic differences in early-word learning between poorer and more affluent homes.

“It is no surprise that poor children tend to enter kindergarten clearly behind their wealthier peers. It is not just poverty that holds them back, but lack of words,” he said. If reading, math and behavioral benchmarks are not met during elementary school, he added, children remain at an educational disadvantage and are at high risk of dropping out before graduation.

“The slippery slope begins well before kindergarten,” he concluded.

Author: Sandra LarsonLawrence Mayor Dan Rivera and Boston Education Chief Rahn Dorsey testify during a hearing on early education bills at the State House last week.

On the Web

Joint Committee on Education: https://malegisla…

Pre-K for MA campaign:

Eye on Early Education blog: http://eyeonearly…

How to pay for it?

Throughout the lengthy hearing, there was no argument over early education’s importance, but questions remain on how to balance speed of implementation with quality, how to balance access for the most needy with universal access, how to train, compensate and retain qualified early ed teachers — and of course, how to pay for an expanded system of any sort.

Hubie Jones had a clear answer on that last question.

“How are we going to pay for it? We’re going to pay for it with money. We’re going to pay for it with tax dollars,” he said. “When legislative leaders lead, the public comes along. The public wants to do the right thing. This is our responsibility.”

The cost of implementing quality preschool is estimated at about $13,000 per child per year, and to serve all 3- and 4-year-old children in the lowest-performing (levels 4 and 5) school districts would require an initial investment of $128 million, according to Jason Williams, executive director of Stand for Children, which spearheads the Pre-K for MA coalition along with another advocacy group, Strategies for Children.

“I know that it’s a hard decision and resources are limited, but public support for this issue is at an all-time high,” said Williams. He cited a statewide survey conducted for the Pre-K for MA campaign earlier this year, in which 63 percent of Massachusetts voter respondents said they favored “making sure there is funding for things like public education” over “holding a hard line on taxes.”

“We’re seeing strong support not only for the issue, but for making sure we pay for quality and get it done,” Williams concluded.

Rahn Dorsey, Boston’s chief of education, said Boston’s existing BPS pre-k (known as “K1”) system has yielded significant results in behavior, language, literacy and math achievement. Now the city needs to ensure quality, flexibility, livable teacher compensation and increased alignment into a zero-to-8 continuum as early education expands to reach more children.

“We want to make sure we are resourcing these programs so they are sustainable over time,” Dorsey said. “It’s become increasingly clear that Boston will not be able to reach its [early education] goals without significant and stable state support.”

Universal access, in time

Committee Co-Chair Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz took a seat at the table to testify on a bill she has introduced that would draw on Chapter 70 funds (state aid to elementary and secondary education) for early education expansion, with an initial target of children of lower-income families and a five-year ramp-up to universal access.

She used her testimony not to tick off details or statistics, but to ask why, as other states surpass us in early education offerings, Massachusetts has not acted.

“How is that in the face of all this evidence, we have not yet made universal quality early education a reality?” She ventured a simple answer: “We have simply not chosen to do it.”

She urged her fellow legislators to consider early education as crucial as universal K–12 education, and not the “afterthought” it has been up to now.

In a phone interview after the hearing, Chang-Diaz cited some of the facts and figures her office has been publicizing on Twitter with info-graphics:

  • Studies of the “word gap” show that by age 4, children of low-income families have heard 32 million fewer words than those in affluent families.
  • Statewide, 43 percent of third-graders are not reading at grade level; among black and Latino children, that figure is 60 percent.
  • Low-income children who attend early education programs are 40 percent less likely to require special education or be held back a grade.
  • Early education programs yield a $17-to-$1 return on investment, according to estimates by the U.S Chamber of Commerce.

The education committee has about 300 bills to consider between now and March, but for Chang-Diaz, early education is the highest priority, she said. Her bill has been identified also as a 2015-16 legislative priority by the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus.

“Early education is the great unfinished work of education reform,” Chang-Diaz said. “Closing that gap is the thing we haven’t cracked yet.”

Federal grant aids BPS pre-k

In related news, Boston is benefiting from part of a $15 million federal Preschool Expansion Grant to Massachusetts that is helping to provide more children across the state with access to high-quality preschool.

Celebrated locally last week at a new preschool classroom in the YMCA’s Roxbury branch, the federal funding supports Boston, Springfield, Holyoke, Lowell and Lawrence school districts to provide a year of free, high-quality preschool for 4-year-olds through partnerships with local early education and care programs. Statewide, the funding will open up free preschool slots for more than 850 low-income children. In Boston, $4 million is being used by Boston Public Schools to support 300 4-year-old children to attend Boston preschool programs licensed by the Department of Early Education and Care.

The eight preschool program partners in Boston are YMCA of Greater Boston, Nurtury, Ellis Memorial, Wesley Child Care, Catholic Charities. ABCD Head Start, Paige Academies and Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester, according to EEC.