In tight times, universal preschool gets held back

INTRO TEXT while massachusetts has invested heavily in public K-12 education in recent years, grand plans to extend that reach to the preschool years are bumping up against harsh fiscal realities and skepticism about making universal early childhood education a top priority for state government.

The idea to extend free preschool to all families started out in 2000 as a $1 billion initiative of the Early Education for All campaign, a statewide lobbying effort led by community organizer Margaret Blood (“Preschool Promise,” CW, Spring ’05). The drive gained traction in 2004, when then-House Speaker Tom Finneran touted it as state government’s next big undertaking. Legislation that year establishing a new Department of Early Education and Care seemed to signal that Massachusetts was serious about following the handful of states that have adopted universal preschool initiatives, but the funding has not followed.

In both 2005 and 2006, lawmakers appropriated $12.5 million to boost day care workers’ salaries. But the only other new funds injected into the early education effort came last year, when then-Gov. Mitt Romney directed $4.6 million toward pre-K pilot programs, a far cry from the grand visions of Early Education for All.

Patrick’s first budget contains little to cheer pre-K advocates.

The $1 billion for that initiative was supposed to be spread over 10 years, with $1 billion in annual support thereafter (including federal dollars). All this was supposed to come on top of the nearly $500 million the state already spends each year to underwrite day care for low-income families.

Blood’s group is now calling for $600 million in new spending, or annual investments of $100 million over six years. Rather than aiming for free early education for all, the campaign is focused on extending at least four hours a day of universal, state-paid preschool to all low-to-moderate income families who want it, while building a framework for early education programs open to all, with sliding-scale fees.

But given the shaky condition of state finances, the question now is whether even this lesser goal is achievable.

Gov. Deval Patrick’s budget plan, released in late February, contains little to cheer universal pre-K advocates. The governor proposed $13 million to move a little more than half the state’s 1,500 kindergarten classroom programs to full day. But Patrick earmarked nothing more than his Republican predecessor did to expand pre-kindergarten for 3- to 5-year-olds.

Margaret Blood launched Early
Education for ALL in 2000.

Patrick included $4.6 million, the same as Romney, for pre-K pilot programs and $3 million that will probably end up earmarked for training courses for pre-K teachers if legislators re-insert last year’s budget language. He did not include the $12.5 million in salary money that was funded in each of the last two years, and the $496 million total that is allocated for the new early education department, most of which already goes to underwriting costs for low-income families, is the same as Romney’s last budget.

“In general, it’s not a real progressive budget for early childhood education,” says William Eddy, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Day Care Agencies, which lobbies for private preschool centers. “It’s, at best, level-funded. We will look to the Legislature to do better.”

Eddy says Patrick’s budget still leaves 20,000 children on waiting lists for subsidized day care slots, and it includes no additional funding for teacher training or early educators’ salaries. It also leaves out $2.7 million that had been earmarked last year for so-called quality issues such as mental health training and accreditation support services.

“We have to be realistic about this,” says Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. “It’s a noble ambition and a lofty goal, but we have to realize that the amount of money available for early childhood education is limited until the economy turns around.”

When and if the spigot for substantial new preschool spending opens, policy-makers will have to grapple with the infighting that has pitted private day care providers against public school leaders.

Koocher and his public school constituency want pre-K based mostly in public schools and taught by highly trained school staff. Those in the private, usually not-for-profit sector (including churches, YMCAs, and small- to mid-sized child care agencies), say that their preschools, with year-round hours that extend from early morning until 5:30 or 6 p.m., provide better support for working families.

“We’re watching the public schools develop a great interest in this because they smell money out there,” says Eddy, the day care center lobbyist.

Finneran had called on private companies to help fund the initiative, under the theory that easily available, high-quality child care helps businesses not only by freeing up more parents to enter the workforce, but also by producing better-educated workers.

But the return on that investment is long-term, and businesses are worried about today’s health insurance costs. Policy-makers and legislators, meanwhile, are preoccupied by a swarm of more immediate demands on state dollars, including local aid and the new health care reform law.

Lawmakers are pressing ahead with legislation, which Patrick says he will sign, to set up a universal pre-K framework and establish sliding scale fees. However, no money is attached to the bill.

Though it will do little for today’s toddlers and their families, the state seems to be saying the best it can offer is a preschool IOU.

Meet the Author
“It will show that we want to do something,” says state Sen. Robert Antonioni, a Leominister Democrat and co-chairman of the Legislature’s Committee on Education. “It will show a commitment to the ideals of it.”

Shaun Sutner is a reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.