Early education funding needed

Early education funding needed

Backs Patrick budget proposal


WITH GOVERNOR DEVAL PATRICK proposing substantial new investments in high-quality early education and President Obama calling for universal access to preschool in his State of the Union address, momentum is growing to target resources where they have the most impact: early childhood. In a time of tough choices, one of the smartest choices we can make is to capture this momentum.

Twenty years ago, Massachusetts launched education reform, established standards, invested millions of dollars in K-12, and earned a well-deserved reputation as a national leader in education. Yet for all the progress Massachusetts has made, the task remains unfinished. Too many children start kindergarten already behind. Too many children never catch up.

The Commonwealth has a wide and persistent achievement gap.  Overall, 39 percent of Massachusetts third graders are not proficient readers, according to the 2012 MCAS, a clear barrier in a state with an innovation-based economy, where reading is the basis of success in school, the workplace, and civic life. Among children from low-income families, 60 percent scored below proficient in reading, and performance remains virtually unchanged since 2001.

Decades of research tell us that the key to turning this around begins in early childhood. It begins with reversing the decline in funding for early education – which is down more than $80 million since fiscal year 2009 and down 28 percent since FY01.

Governor Patrick’s FY14 budget recommendation focuses on three critical outcomes — improving third grade reading, closing the achievement gap, and increasing school readiness. President Obama, addressing similar issues in his State of the Union address, called for “working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.”

With Nobel laureate James Heckman and other leading economists estimating a 10 to 16 percent return on investing in high-quality early education, this is one of the most cost-effective uses of taxpayers’ money.

“The quality of our workforce is not what it should be, and it is not improving,” Heckman has written. “The United States invests relatively little at the starting point – in early childhood development – and as a consequence pays dearly for this neglect at every point thereafter. Our country will be unable to compete in the global economy if it does not address the increasing numbers of children who are not prepared for success in school, career, and life.”

It is far more expensive to remediate problems later than prevent them now. The benefits of high-quality early education, particularly for low-income children, include greater school readiness, improved early literacy and math skills, improved social-emotional development, reduced placement in special education, and reduced grade retention. Other benefits include higher rates of high school completion and college attendance, greater earnings and better health as adults, and reduced social costs.

Under the leadership of the governor and Legislature, Massachusetts has laid the foundation for a statewide system of high-quality early education that respects parent choice and sets clear standards to infuse quality in all early learning settings, whether they are family child care homes, community-based centers, public school pre-kindergarten, or Head Start. This foundation was built with little investment of state dollars.

Massachusetts is home to the nation’s first consolidated Department of Early Education and Care. Thousands of working early educators pursuing college degrees are aided by the oversubscribed Early Childhood Educators Scholarship. The state has launched a Quality Rating and Improvement System that defines levels of quality and provides programs with pathways to improve. The time has come to seize an opportunity that, if missed, might not present itself again for years.

Governor Patrick’s proposal is a comprehensive plan that would increase children’s access to high-quality programs by phasing in the elimination of the wait list for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers – which now stands at roughly 30,000 children. It would invest in quality improvements throughout the mixed-delivery system and increase funding for pre-kindergarten under Chapter 70, the state’s education funding formula. It would support families.

The board of my organization, Strategies for Children, is a diverse group. The chairman, Paul O’Brien, the former CEO of New England Telephone, is a Republican. He says increasing revenues for high-quality early education “is investment, not consumption.” Another board member, Christopher Martes, is interim superintendent of schools in Norton and former president and executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. He calls investing in high-quality early education “the next push for the whole education system” and says, “If children enter kindergarten with knowledge and skills acquired in high-quality early learning settings, then we can accelerate the learning that goes on inside our schools.”

We urge the Legislature to act to further improve the quality of early education programs across the state, to substantially increase young children’s access to high-quality early education, and to approve the revenue needed to achieve these goals. We appreciate the challenges legislators face during budget deliberations. We urge them to heed the advice of the Committee for Economic Development, a non-partisan, business-led public policy organization.

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“Our nation now faces tough choices to renew the economy, but fiscal prudence cannot be served at the expense of under-investing in the well-being and future of our children – and thereby preventing unnecessary remedial expenditures,” the organization says. “It is vital for our country’s future that investments in our youngest children remain a major national and state-level priority.”

Irene Sege is director of communications for Strategies for Children and its Early Education for All Campaign . She blogs at Eye on Early Education .