By Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE — Three- and four-year-old children in Massachusetts would be counted among enrolled students in school districts that have a state-approved plan to expand pre-school programs in their communities, under newly filed legislation.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers pushing for universal pre-kindergarten statewide touted their proposal Tuesday during a press conference at the State House.
Pre-school has been a focus in recent national and state discussions about education, with President Barack Obama in October outlining it as one of his presidential goals to have six million children enrolled in pre-school by 2020. During the Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign, Democrat Martha Coakley made it a key part of her campaign platform.
More than half of preschool-aged children in Massachusetts are enrolled in either public or private early education programs, yet many low-income children have no pre-school available to them, according to lawmakers hoping to expand access.
Under the bill, state education officials would be charged with phasing in a plan for school districts that want to expand or improve their early education programs and have pre-school-aged children counted in building the school’s foundation budget. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Department of Early Education and Care would develop a five-year plan for school districts to receive additional funding, starting first with lower-income communities.
Proponents of making pre-school available to more toddlers said they do not have any estimates on the cost, saying it is something legislators will have to grapple with if they want to make it a priority.
An hour before lawmakers publicly pushed to spend more money on pre-school, Gov. Charlie Baker announced an estimated $765 million state budget deficit.
“Early education should not be an extra and it should not be an after-thought,” Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, one of the bill’s lead sponsors, said Tuesday during the press conference, surrounded by pre-school students, parents and other lawmakers.
“You figure out how to pay for it if it is a priority,” she added.
Baker, during a Tuesday press conference about the budget gap, was non-committal about pre-school expansion, saying that after the budget problems are addressed there could be an opportunity to “invest in programs that are important.”
Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, who is backing the bill, said costs will concern some, but not making pre-school available to more children has bigger costs in the long run.
“How can we afford in the Commonwealth to keep leaving kids behind?” Curtatone said during the pre-school legislation press conference.
In Somerville, full-day kindergarten is available to all students free, Curtatone said.
“Some of my colleagues in cities and towns would want to do the same. They can’t afford it. They can’t afford to without making a choice on another core service,” he said. “We need to have that discussion about how do we pay for it, and make sure we find a way to pay for it.”
Massachusetts early education officials are proposing a fiscal year 2016 budget that aims to get more children off pre-school wait lists while also boosting funding for universal pre-kindergarten.
Currently, more than 23,000 children are on waiting lists for subsidized pre-school and child care programs, down from nearly 40,000, according to early education officials.
Early education officials said last week they could decrease the number of children on waiting lists for pre-school programs with an additional $15 million for child care and early education subsidies for low-income families.
Proponents of expanding access to early education say it will raise reading proficiency rates, pointing to the fact that 43 percent of third graders in Massachusetts do not read at grade level according to the latest MCAS results.
Colleen Galvin Labbe, a kindergarten teacher in Dorchester, told a story about a 5-year-old girl who started school this year without the benefit of pre-school.
The little girl, named Jackie, became discouraged when she realized she was unable to do some of the things her classmates could do. When a student’s first school experience is kindergarten they are starting behind many of their peers, Galvin Labbe said.
“She didn’t know the names of the letters of the alphabet. How to count from 1 to 10, or how to write her name,” she said.
With intervention at school, the little girl “beamed” when she finally was able to write her name by herself, Galvin Labbe said.
Nonie Lesaux, from Harvard University Graduate School of Education, said third grade reading scores have been low or stagnant in Massachusetts for a decade. Children who are not proficient readers by third grade are likely to remain poor readers through high school, according to Lesaux.
Research points to a link between early reading difficulties with later behavioral problems, social and emotional issues, juvenile delinquency, under-employment and unemployment, according to Lesaux.
The issue garnered support from both conservative and socially progressive lawmakers. During the press conference, Sen. Jason Lewis, a Democrat from Winchester, and Sen. Patricia Jehlen, a Democrat from Somerville stood alongside Rep. Shaunna O’Connell, a Republican from Taunton, and Rep. Geoff Diehl, a Republican from Whitman, to support the legislation.