Federal early ed aid is great but not enough

Massachusetts needs to do more

When Gov. Deval Patrick and more than 150 legislators, early educators, early childhood advocates ,and state education leaders gathered at the State House last month to celebrate the Commonwealth’s newly awarded federal Race to the Top- Early Learning Challenge grant, they certainly had reason to feel proud.

Of 35 states (plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) that applied for the $500 million competitive grant program, only nine states were awarded funds. Massachusetts earned the second highest score in the nation and received the full $50 million over four years for which it was eligible.

Yet as critical as the infusion of federal funds will be to accelerate progress toward building a statewide system of high-quality early education and care and closing the achievement gap, it is not enough. Indeed, the Early Learning Challenge is designed to supplement, not supplant, state investments.

Now is the time to leverage this exciting federal investment with increased funding of high-quality early education and care in the state’s fiscal year 2013 budget.

The budget recommendation that Gov. Patrick sent to the Legislature eight days after the State House celebration level funds most items related to early education and care. In what Patrick called one of his “tough choices,” it limits funding for children in low-income families, which will increase the waiting list. The governor’s budget would increase funding for full-day kindergarten grants by $3 million. The Gateway Cities Education Agenda, a $10 million initiative in the Executive Office of Education, includes a $575,000 Gateway Cities Early Literacy Programs line item.

As much as we appreciate the challenges the governor faced in crafting a FY13 budget, his recommendations do not go far enough to capitalize on the opportunity created by the Early Learning Challenge.

Although Massachusetts has tried to protect investments in early education from the economic and fiscal crisis, overall funding of early education and care has decreased in recent years. According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, state funding of early education and care has declined by $104 million in inflation-adjusted dollars since fiscal year 2009.

Unlike K-12 education, which is financed largely through state and local dollars, public funding of early education and care comes primarily from federal dollars, along with a relatively small investment of state monies. To close the achievement gap and ensure equal opportunity and access for all of the state’s children, the state must increase its stake in high-quality early education and care.

The federal Early Learning Challenge – whose purpose is to enhance quality, not increase the number of children served — rewarded states that already have a strong foundation for young children. In Massachusetts, this foundation includes creation of the nation’s first consolidated Department of Early Education and Care in 2005, an evidence-based Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) that defines levels of program quality, a Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) grant program designed to support and sustain quality programs, and the Early Childhood Educators Scholarship for early educators working toward college degrees.

The Massachusetts Early Learning Plan detailed in the state’s application for the federal challenge grant includes provisions to build on this foundation by expanding QRIS, developing age-appropriate assessments of young children, and supporting the professional development and training of the early education workforce.

As the FY13 budget process continues, Early Education for All, a campaign of Strategies for Children, urges the Legislature to maintain or increase funding for all line items in the Department of Early Education and Care, as well as other line items related to high-quality early education. Among other things, we urge the Legislature to include $4 million for QRIS and to fund UPK at the FY09 level of $12.14 million. We urge it to maintain funding of $3.4 million for the Early Childhood Educators Scholarship and to increase funding for mental health services in early education programs to $1 million. We urge it to allocate $242.9 million for early education and care and out-of-school-time services for low-income children eligible for state aid and to designate $25.95 million for grants to expand and enhance the quality of full-day kindergarten.

Massachusetts is known for its brain power and innovation-based economy. Here, more than in many states, the advice of Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman resonates. He and other leading economists estimate a 10-16 percent rate of return on investing in high-quality early education. This is why he advised last year’s congressional supercommittee – charged with reducing the federal deficit – to invest in young children.

“The United States,” Heckman wrote, “invests relatively little at the starting point – in early childhood development – and as a consequence pays dearly for this neglect at every point thereafter.”

Meet the Author
Let us continue to work together in Massachusetts to turn this around.

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