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Evan Horowitz | Analysis

Preschool pays off, but only for kids that go

Children at the Laboure Center Preschool in South Boston.

Bill Brett / Globe Staff

Children at the Laboure Center Preschool in South Boston.

Sometimes the best way to think about our state budget is to look at the things we’re choosing not to do. This year, for instance, we are not doing much to get kids into high-quality early education and child care programs.

Elsewhere, preschool has been at the very top of the legislative agenda. Traditionally liberal states like New York and Minnesota and deep red states like Oklahoma, Georgia, and Alabama have been expanding early education programs to reflect a growing body of research about the long-term benefits. Kids who attend good preschool programs end up doing better in school and finding higher-paying careers as adults. And it’s not just about kids. Parents with reliable, affordable child care have an easier time finding and keeping jobs, which is good for them and good for the economy.

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In Massachusetts, we have a program to help low-income families pay for early education and care, but the program doesn’t get enough money to cover everyone who’s eligible. Instead, families end up on a wait list, which currently includes nearly 25,000 kids.

Last year, the governor introduced a plan to eliminate the wait list entirely, but it didn’t make it through the Legislature. This year, he proposed something more modest, an increase of about $15 million to support an additional 1,700 kids (or 7 percent of the wait list)

Apparently, the House thought even that was too much, because their budget proposal had a smaller, $10 million increase.

Wednesday, it’s the Senate’s turn to share its proposal. Advocates are hoping that the Senate will match the governor’s $15 million, but really there’s no reason they should stop there. If early education is good for kids and good for their parents, perhaps we should work harder to make it available to all eligible families.

How much would that cost? According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (where I used to work), we could greatly expand access to high-quality early education and care for about $300 million to $400 million per year. That’s obviously a substantial amount of money, but it’s hardly prohibitive. Just to put it in context, it’s about 1 percent of our state budget. We’d still be spending less on early education than we do on higher education, and we could actually cover the full cost by raising the income tax one-10th of one percent.

There’s no reason to think the Senate is contemplating such an expansion. At this point in the budget process, the focus has shifted from tackling the biggest challenges in the Commonwealth to building consensus among the House, Senate, and governor. But that shouldn’t stop us from thinking about what those big challenges are and what we could be doing to address them.

Update: The Senate Ways and Means Committee ultimately proposed an increase of $17.5 million, which they estimate will cover an additional 3,000 kids (or 12% of the wait list).

More by Evan Horowitz:

-- How do we sustain growth with an aging population?

-- What you need to know about tomorrow’s budget proposal

-- Inside the Mass. House’s budget proposal

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz
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