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Many families get no help to pay for early education cost

About 19,000 children age 3 and 4 from low-income Massachusetts families, who probably cannot afford early education programs, do not get public assistance for preschool or prekindergarten, according to a new report from a budget research group.

These children come from families in poverty or whose incomes fall below most basic cost-of-living thresholds — about $40,000 for a family of three, the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center study found, adding to the long-simmering debate about expanding school access for young children .

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The report, from the left-leaning research outfit, estimated there were about 158,000 3- and 4-year-olds living in the state in 2012. It noted some attend Head Start, a program backed by the federal government; others attend public prekindergarten; and others go to private preschools, with families paying fully out of pocket or getting help through state subsidies.

“Right now we have a very fragmented system and that leaves many kids without access to any early education at all,” said Noah Berger, the president of the research group.

He said there was a growing consensus — and research data to support it — that a wide expansion of early education options was good for children and for the economy.

The sticking point, he explained, is the cost.

“Ultimately this is a question, for all the people of Massachusetts, is this something that is important enough for all of us to pay for? It’s something that would probably require new tax revenue,” he said, referring to raising taxes.

But any effort in the near future to raise taxes to pay for more early childhood education would probably face major opposition from the Legislature.

In 2013, Governor Deval Patrick proposed substantially increasing funding for early childhood education in a plan that included raising the state income tax.

The Legislature slimmed down that push; instead passing into law a much smaller budget with no income tax hike.

In January, Patrick again pressed for increased funding for early education programs in his 2015 budget proposal, but this time did not propose broad-based tax increases.

The research report, set to be released Monday, comes days before the state House of Representatives plans to release its state budget proposal. The state Senate will roll out its own plan later.

Senator Bruce E. Tarr of Gloucester, the chamber’s top Republican, said he did not believe there is currently “an appetite for a tax increase” to fund increased early education offerings. “But,” he said, “there is a tremendous appetite — bipartisan — to make sure we get more kids enrolled in preschool.”

The report lays out various options for expanding early education to more children in the state.

The priciest one would be to offer public prekindergarten to all 3- and 4-year-olds in the state not currently receiving public support, including those from middle- and high-income families. The group’s analysis found that would cost $1.48 billion annually, which would be split between municipalities and the state. Tarr called that number “staggering” and said there were other, less costly, ways to expand educational opportunities for young children.

Another option would be to expand the current state subsidy system, in which Massachusetts picks up a sliding percentage of the cost of a private preschool depending on a family’s income.

The report estimated expanding that system to all children from families making at or below 400 percent of the federal poverty level would cost the state about $153 million annually. That could help move children off waiting lists but would fall short of offering early education to all 3- and 4-year-olds.

The final option the study offers is a hybrid vision that gives communities flexibility in how they would use new public dollars for early education. But it does not estimate how much it would cost.

Amy O’Leary of Strategies for Children, a statewide group that advocates for early childhood education, said there was a growing push across the state from superintendents to mayors to preschool teachers to give more 3- and 4-year-olds access to schooling.

But how exactly that might be accomplished, she said, remained an open question.

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.
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