By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON -- Expanding affordable access to early education and care for all 3- and 4-year-olds in Massachusetts could cost as much as $1.5 billion, according to a new report that examines options available to policymakers hoping to achieve the long-elusive goal of universal pre-kindergarten.
Nearly a decade has passed since legislators passed a law creating the Department of Early Education and Care and committing the state to a policy assuring "every child a fair and full opportunity" to services that will "maximize a child's capacity and opportunity to learn."
While some progress has been made, universal pre-kindergarten remains an unattained goal with costs -- for both families and state government -- proving to be one of the biggest hurdles to overcome. Gov. Deval Patrick last year proposed a plan to substantially increase taxes that would have committed a significant portion of new tax dollars to early education, but the Legislature pursued a more modest path that made only a slight dent in the waiting list.
Chelmsford is one of a small minority in Massachusetts by not offering full-day kindergarten.
Chelmsford school officials considered adopting full-day kindergarten for the coming school year but then held off because of cost concerns. Among the challenges was instituting full-day classes without charging families extra, which would have raised start-up costs.
Superintendent Frank Tiano, however, included $1 million spread across budgets in coming years as part of a five-year budget plan he presented last month.
Billerica approved free full-day kindergarten for all students in February. It had previously offered full-day classes at a charge of $3,000. More than two-thirds of districts statewide charge a fee for full-day classes, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Patrick has proposed small investments in early education this year without a major tax hike and House Speaker Robert DeLeo has sworn off tax increases in the budget he will present Wednesday.
Other states, like New York, are pursuing universal pre-kindergarten without tax increases.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently reached a deal with New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio and the state Legislature committing $1.5 billion over five years to full-day preschool for 4-year-olds paid for through the state budget and borrowing.
The new report from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center examined the scope of the underserved children in Massachusetts and three options that could be considered to improve access to pre-kindergarten schooling for students who don't currently receive any state subsidy.
The report argued that early education has been proven to not just improve a student's prospects for education and work success later in life, but would also benefit the parents and the economy by allowing them to more fully participate in the workforce and relieve the financial pressures of paying for early education and care.
The MBPC estimated that there were roughly 158,000 3- and 4-year-olds old living in Massachusetts in 2012, of which 52,000 receive public support to help fund their early education through the federally funded Head Start program, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's offerings, or subsidies through the Department of Early Education and Care for private services.
The remaining 105,500 children are either not in a program or their families are paying full price for private schooling and care, according to the report, which also estimated that roughly 19,000 children living in families under 200 percent of the poverty line were getting no assistance.
The report, written by Jeff Bernstein and Luc Schuster of the Budget and Policy Center, explored several options for expanding access to early education opportunities, including universal access through the public schools, an expansion of subsidies for private care, or a public-private hybrid system.
The public school expansion would be the costliest option for the state and cities and towns, estimated at $1.48 billion to offer full-day pre-kindergarten to all 105,500 kids currently not receiving any public assistance, regardless of family income. The estimate is based on the current average per-pupil foundation of $13,999.
"It is important to note that while the total cost of $1.48 billion may appear large, much of this total represents money already being spent privately by parents in the private child care system. In some ways, one could think of these options as shifting resources currently in the private early education and care system into a more comprehensive public system," the authors wrote.
A second option would require the administration and the Legislature to more than double its commitment to subsidies for private pre-school paid out on a sliding scale to all families living at or under 400 percent of the federal poverty level. This option would cost the state $153 million with families picking up the other $288 million and would not reach the almost 54,000 children from families with incomes higher than the threshold.
The final option, which did not have a specific cost estimate attached, would be to explore the models used in New Jersey or Boston for better integration of public and private pre-school options with increased funding going toward more seats in public programs or to support integrated programming in public and private settings.
"Needless to say, the state will face many pressing design and implementation challenges in pursuing any of these options. But the evidence is clear: by expanding and improving our current system of early education and care, we can help build a foundation for success, both for children directly and for the state economy as a whole," the report concluded.
The report also estimated that requiring free full-day kindergarten in fiscal 2014 would increase the foundation education budget by $77.5 million and cost the state $29.3 million in additional Chapter 70 aid to cities and towns reaching 8,760 students.
MediaNews reporter Grant Welker contributed reporting.