No consensus on pace of early education access expansion

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STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, SEPT. 16, 2015….With advocates calling for a dramatic expansion of early education in Massachusetts, a top Baker administration official on Wednesday recommended a “sustainable” expansion of services.

Secretary of Education James Peyser told the Education Committee he hopes to consolidate some funding streams so preschool directors are spared the “administrative headache” of piecing together grants, and he wants assessment of young children’s development and learning while distinguishing that from a “high stakes accountability system.”

Acknowledging that early educator salaries can be quite low, Peyser said his goal of higher quality teachers will not be achieved by “simply” increasing state-funded salaries or raising standards. He advocated for training and said early education should be expanded at a pace that is “sustainable.”

The list of children ages infant-to-5-years-old waiting to get into educational programs was 17,290 in July, slightly down from the 17,935 a year ago, according to the Department of Early Education and Care.

Asked about youngsters waiting to receive programming, Peyser said, “We need to keep working at it.” He said public funding for pre-kindergarten “will continue to expand.”

Last year, the wait-list for early education became a political topic in the campaign for governor, which Gov. Charlie Baker won.

In a packed hearing room where the policy talk was occasionally accompanied by the babbling of toddlers, Democratic lawmakers cited public education pioneer Horace Mann and New Deal President Franklin Roosevelt to make the case for an early educational system as fully established as the elementary system.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz sat across from her committee co-chairwoman, Rep. Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat, and advocated for an alteration of legislative priorities.

“Let’s today shift our focus to the one issue that most of us actually agree on,” Chang-Diaz said. Noting the near-universal belief in the value of high quality early education, Chang-Diaz said, “We have simply not chosen to do it.”

The Jamaica Plain Democrat’s bill (S 253) would direct school districts to lay out a plan for universal pre-kindergarten education “in districts that demonstrate the intention and capacity to provide high-quality programs.”

Sen. Sal DiDomenico, an Everett Democrat, proposed a bill (S 266) with a similar aim, which would make it state policy to provide early education services to all families that meet eligibility requirements. The bill would also provide 3 percent annual raises for state-funded early educators.

Rep. Alan Silvia, a Fall River Democrat, lamented that the state that established free public education now lags behind other areas of the country on pre-kindergarten education.

“We’ve dropped the ball with pre-K education. All of those states down south are doing a much better job than we are,” Sylvia said.

Lawmakers, advocates and the administration are of like mind about the importance of early education on later-in-life achievements, such as third-grade reading ability.

Early Education and Care Commissioner Tom Weber said early education involves a range of responsibilities and said families are offered “more choice” in early education than elsewhere in the educational structure.

“Children’s needs differ. Families needs differ,” Weber told the committee. He said the momentum behind early education is “palpable,” and said the Baker administration would “emphasize depth over breadth.”

Chad d’Entremont, executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, said 27 states provide greater access to 4-year-olds in pre-kindergarten than Massachusetts.

This year, Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed $17.6 million in funding for kindergarten expansion grants, a budget cut that was unanimously overridden in the House and Senate, which restored the funding.

Peyser said the grants were introduced in the 1990s when about a quarter of the districts had full-day kindergarten, and now about 90 percent have full-day kindergarten. Peyser said the state also now takes into account kindergartners when working out the amount of state education funding districts should receive.

Before the hearing, DiDomenico attended an organizing rally and recalled receiving Head Start services 40 years ago and said “they were begging” people back then to fill slots in the program. “Today we don’t have enough places for all of our children and that is wrong. Forty years later we should be going forward, not backwards,” he said.

Lawmakers for years have touted the need to expand access to early education but haven’t committed the funds to make good on that goal.

DiDomenico told activists they would not find a single person in the State House who does not support early education. “The question you’ve got to ask them is ‘At what level? Not just in words only, are you going to be there when it comes down to a vote?’ ”

[Michael Norton contributed reporting]

Copyright 2015 State House News Service

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