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The Podium

Investing in the state’s youngest citizens

There has been a lot of talk on Beacon Hill about the need to improve the state’s infrastructure in order to ensure that Massachusetts enjoys a prosperous future. Among the many initiatives laid out by Governor Patrick in his ambitious agenda is an investment in a sometimes overlooked but crucial key to the state’s future: early childhood education.

The governor’s budget proposes an increase of $131 million in additional funding for early childhood education and care. While modest in relation to other initiatives, this additional funding has the opportunity to impact nearly every household in the Commonwealth. It can strengthen families and play a critical role in accelerating steps our schools have taken to close the achievement gap.

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The work to strengthen Massachusetts children and families has suffered under the weight of the economic crisis and cutbacks in state funding that supports our youngest residents and their parents. Spending for pre-kindergarten programs in the state fell from 8th in the nation 10 years ago to 23rd in the nation in 2011, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. The decline in funding has had a very real impact on educator salaries, staff retention and maintaining a consistent, high quality level of care. There are currently 30,000 children, age birth to five, on the waitlist for early education programs in the state.

For several years, this decline has been a missed opportunity to invest not only in children and their futures, but also in our collective economic well-being. Studies have consistently demonstrated that children who attend high-quality early education and care settings are more likely to have higher achievement test scores, graduate from high school, and secure higher incomes as adult citizens. Furthermore, researchers from the Committee for Economic Development estimate the rate of return on early childhood education funding can be as high as 18.3 percent.

The governor’s call to increase spending on early education may finally allow us to begin a crucial aspect of education reform: ensuring that all children, regardless of family income or what neighborhood they live in, have access to high quality child care and pre-school prior to the start of kindergarten. While our work between kindergarten and college has been exemplary on many fronts, Massachusetts has fallen behind in the effort to ensure high-quality early childhood education. Our missteps in this area may be a chief reason the successes of education reform have failed to reach every school.

As the state has emerged from the depths of the recession, advocates for early childhood education and some of the leading businesses in Massachusetts have worked diligently to address the inadequate funding levels for early education programs. Even as revenues decrease and businesses struggle, the lives of our youngest citizens continue to move forward, with approximately 70,000 children entering our public schools every year.

While students in the state’s elementary and secondary schools have risen to the top of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, better known as the Nation’s Report Card, no one thinks the work of education reform is done in Massachusetts. By other measures, there is still a long way to go to improve urban schools, lower dropout rates and narrow the achievement gap that separates white students from their peers of color. The governor’s proposed investment in our children is also an investment in families and, indirectly, an economic development initiative. Access to high quality early education not only supports children, but provides peace of mind for working parents, allows many to re-enter the workforce, and increases productivity for Massachusetts employers.

Early education is the best and perhaps most effective way to stop the achievement gap that plagues Massachusetts. It is an investment that guarantees great returns for the economy, in the long-term and in the immediate future. It also strengthens the infrastructure of our most precious social and economic resource: the Massachusetts family.

Ron Friedman is senior vice president of Richards Barry Joyce & Partners. Jed Swan is founder and managing partner of Drydock Ventures.
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