Lawmakers should maximize investment in young children

More than 30,000 of the state's poorest children are on waiting lists for early ed

By July 1, Massachusetts will most likely have a state budget for fiscal year 2014. A six-member conference committee is currently meeting to negotiate differences between the House and Senate budgets. For early education and care funding, differences between the House and Senate budget proposals on various initiatives add up to nearly $40 million. The conference committee should close this funding gap by maximizing the state’s investment in young children.

While Massachusetts is known for its educational successes, we still have a significant and entrenched achievement gap that shows up on the third grade MCAS exam, the first statewide measure of children’s progress. On this test, nearly 40 percent of Massachusetts children, including 60 percent of children from low-income families, read below grade level. These troubling outcomes have remained stagnant for more than a decade.

Research shows too many children begin school already behind – and too many will never catch up. One way to help these children, experts agree, is by offering them high-quality early education programs. Research shows that these programs have a lifetime impact on young learners, particularly those from low-income families. Children enrolled in high-quality preschool programs are better prepared for school, perform better on achievement tests, have better social skills, and earn higher incomes as adults. These children are also less likely to drive up social costs for special education placements and incarceration.

Leading economists estimate a 10 to 16 percent return on investments in high-quality early education. And parents see their children make leaps in literacy, vocabulary, math, and the all-important ability to play well with others.

Unfortunately, funding for early education and care has been cut by more than $80 million since fiscal year 2009. Because of insufficient funding, more than 30,000 infants, toddlers, and preschoolers from low-income families are on the Commonwealth’s waiting list for an early education and care subsidy.

The conference committee can begin to turn the tide by taking these crucial steps to help children:   

  •  Increase or maintain investments in core Early Education and Care (EEC) programs by adopting Senate funding levels for Head Start, Income Eligible childcare, and EEC administration, and by adopting House funding levels for universal pre-kindergarten,  Coordinated Family and Community Engagement grants, supportive child care, early childhood resource and referral agencies, and Reach Out and Read.
  •  Increase children’s access to high-quality early education by adopting the Senate proposal of $15 million for decreasing the income eligible waitlist.
  • Offer higher salaries to retain and attract highly skilled and experienced teachers by adopting the Senate’s proposal of $11.5 million for a rate reserve for early educators.
  • Maintain high-quality full-day kindergarten by supporting House funding levels for full-day kindergarten grants.

  These investments mirror the growing momentum for early education at the federal level where President Obama has called for a national expansion of preschool programs, and bills in Congress would create grants to fund high-quality preschool programs. 

Support also comes from red- and blue-state governors. Though his proposals were not adopted by the Legislature, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick rightly called for a $131 million increase in funding for early education and care at the start of this budget season. In Pennsylvania, Republican Governor Tom Corbett talked about early education programs in his State of the State address, saying, “Why do we want to spend more on these programs? Because every child in Pennsylvania deserves an equal start in life, and I intend to see that promise kept.”

Meet the Author
We hope that in the midst of their hard work, the conference committee here in Massachusetts will also be able to keep the promise of an equal start to the state’s children.

Alyssa Haywoode writes for Eye on Early Education , a blog of Strategies for Children, Inc .