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Yvonne Abraham

Fund early education, as Oklahoma does

If only Massachusetts were more like Oklahoma.

You read that right.

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Not, of course, the Oklahoma that botched an execution last week. No, thank you. The Oklahoma I envy is the one that’s way ahead of us when it comes to early education: It’s one of just two states to offer free preschool to every 4-year-old. (Georgia, that other progressive bastion, is the other.)

If a state that is now synonymous with government-sponsored inhumanity can do it, why on earth can’t we?

If you want bang-for-your-public-buck, it’s hard to beat early ed for poor kids. It’s a cause that should have both bleeding heart libs and die-hard conservatives singing Kumbaya.

With good preschools, kids start kindergarten ready to read and do math. Studies show they’re less likely to fall behind in lower grades, and more likely to complete the higher ones. As adults, they earn more, according to the most famous study, which has followed a group of 123 poor Michigan kids since the 1960s. It found that by age 40, those who had attended a Ypsilanti preschool, which also provided intensive services to families, had lower arrest rates than those who had had no early education. Other studies have found lower teen pregnancy rates among those who get early ed, and even less tobacco use.

If disadvantaged kids get good preschool, you’re looking at lower costs for special ed, welfare, and corrections, among the many other things for which we pay dearly after the horse has bolted. Some economists have tallied the numbers, and conclude that every dollar spent on early ed for poor kids today can save as many as seven down the line.

So what’s our problem? We’re nowhere near Oklahoma’s universal offering, or Georgia’s. Or even close to New Jersey, where free preschool is offered to children in 31 disadvantaged communities (though Boston has made great strides).

“We like to pride ourselves, as we should, on being a real national leader when it comes to equal opportunity and quality education for our kids,” says Jason Williams, state executive director of education reform group Stand for Children. “But we’re definitely behind right now when it comes to early education.”

In Massachusetts, there are more than 40,000 kids on the waiting list for vouchers to help pay for child care and preschool. The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center says that about 12,000 of those are 3- and 4-year-olds whose families live at or below 200 percent of the poverty level; that’s about $900 or less a week for a family of four.

Luz Lopez, an organizer with Stand for Children, says there are at least 2,000 kids on the waiting list in Springfield. She deals with frustrated parents like Karla Rivera, whose 3-year-old has been on the list for a year. “If the government could help us a little more, our kids could be more successful in the future,” said Rivera, as Lopez translated her Spanish.

There has been a massive push for more and better early ed over the past couple of years, nationally and locally. Last year, Governor Deval Patrick proposed a huge infusion of cash to get kids into preschools, paid for by tax increases. The Legislature shut him down. Instead, an extra $15 million was provided to get roughly 1,700 kids off the waiting list. This year, Patrick proposed another $15 million bump. The House offered $10 million. It would be delightful if the Senate found room to get a couple hundred more of the state’s poorest kids kids into preschool.

But even then, we’d still be just chipping away at the problem. We’re not thinking big enough, or far enough into the future. A tax hike, even for returns that are this obvious, seems out of the question in this Legislature. So the only hope here is an economic boom that would generate the hundreds of millions it would cost to clear kids off that waiting list.

Until then, poor 4-year-olds are out of luck. Which means that, in a few years, so are the rest of us.

Yvonne Abrahamcan be reached at abraham@globe.com.
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