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Eight years after Walsh’s promises, Boston prekindergarten is still not universal

Skyla Withers, 5, left, and Giovanni Gamble, 5, play with other children at the Cooper Community Center in Roxbury in January. They are among hundreds of children who have benefited from Boston's expansion of city-funded prekindergarten in recent years.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

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Martin J. Walsh ran for mayor of Boston in 2013 promising free, high-quality prekindergarten for all. Eight years later, as he prepares to leave office, the city has provided enough seats for just over half of Boston’s 4-year-olds.

The pre-K program in Boston Public Schools is well-regarded, but without universal capacity, the spots tend to go to savvier families who know about the early application deadline, leaving many low-income parents with limited options in the nation’s second-most expensive child-care market.


“It is an unfulfilled promise for Black and brown children in the city of Boston,” said Edith Bazile, a former Boston schools administrator and past president of the Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts. “It’s still a system of haves and have-nots.”

Research has shown that access to high quality pre-K affects not only learning in children’s early years, but also their future academic, behavioral, and job success.

For comparison’s sake, observers point to New York City. Like Walsh, Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned on universal prekindergarten. Both took office in 2014. Now, 75 percent of New York’s 4-year-olds are enrolled in the city system, up from 14 percent in 2014. Meanwhile, Boston has increased its enrollment from 40 percent of 4-year-olds to about half.

But there was a key distinction: de Blasio received hundreds of millions of dollars annually from New York state; Walsh, despite his pleas to Beacon Hill, did not gain significant help from the state, collecting a comparatively small $1.5 million in state grants spread over three years.

“We’ve been [doing] this on our own,” Walsh said. “The fact that we’ve embarked on this is a very strong, positive move for our young people here in the city, but there has to be a larger commitment on a statewide level.”


With help from a federal grant, Boston has made substantial progress. The number of city-funded slots has increased from 2,439 to 3,425 over Walsh’s tenure. But there still aren’t nearly enough for all the estimated 6,400 4-year-olds in the city.

Boston school officials maintain that hundreds of those 6,400 students don’t want or need slots in city-led pre-K; many are served, for instance, by private programs or stay at home. They believe far more modest growth could satisfy the need.

Still, in a city where the cost of private pre-K can exceed that of public college tuition, many education advocates have grown frustrated with the pace of Boston’s progress. Other cities — such as New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. — have even extended free preschool to 3-year-olds.

“The pace has been slower than I would like,” said Boston City Council President Kim Janey, who will become acting mayor after Walsh’s expected confirmation as President Biden’s labor secretary. “We’ve got to step up the pace if we’re serious about closing opportunity and achievement gaps.”

Low-income and immigrant children are most likely to be left out of the city-funded program, advocates said.

“The early education spots are really difficult to come by,” said Lorena Lopera, the Massachusetts executive director of Latinos for Education, a national advocacy group. “A lot of our families are in survival mode” and don’t have the resources and workday flexibility to navigate the confusing system, she said.


As a candidate in 2013, Walsh pitched selling City Hall to fund early education. But once in office, he said that one-time revenue was not a sustainable solution. In 2014, Walsh appointed a committee to advise him on the logistics and financing needed to attain universal prekindergarten by 2020.

But Walsh kept the committee’s report under wraps for a year, disclosing in 2015 that the effort could cost $56 million, and the city had no means to pay for it. Over several years, Walsh was rebuffed repeatedly in bids to secure state funding for pre-K.

In 2017, for instance, while running for reelection, Walsh proposed funding universal pre-K using the state’s surplus money from Boston tourists’ taxes.

But Governor Charlie Baker and the Legislature, which frequently used that money to balance the state budget, did not agree. Observers criticized the proposal by Walsh, a former lawmaker, as ill-prepared, since it surprised the people whose support was needed for it to pass.

Walsh ultimately shifted to a narrower preschool expansion targeting low-income families. He modestly expanded seats in public schools, while using a federal grant of $16 million starting in 2015 to improve quality and fully cover tuition at private day cares for up to 310 students yearly.

That program has slowly grown, incorporating additional funding sources after the grant ended. The city now covers tuition for 571 seats in private centers including YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs, religious schools, and bilingual organizations. (That’s in addition to 2,854 spots inside public schools.) City officials say they can sustain the current program — which this year cost $11 million — through Boston’s schools budget and a dedicated five-year, $15 million fund created by Walsh.


The city funding has provided the cash-strapped private centers with coaching and a curriculum, and allowed them to maintain small class sizes and raise teacher pay, training, and standards.

“It’s made us so much stronger,” said Lillie Searcy, executive director of the Hattie B. Cooper Community Center in Roxbury, where teachers have learned new techniques in math, science, and literacy instruction.

But the current capacity is still a far way off from universal pre-K, Walsh concedes. And many advocates wish city leaders had been more aggressive in trying to fund universal access.

“If [the state] is not going to do it, then we need to figure out how to do it ourselves,” Lopera said.

Even as the city lacks universal access, dozens of new slots go unfilled. That’s led to another big concern: The existing system is too complicated for many families to navigate, and lacks public visibility.

Every year, hundreds of families get waitlisted for prekindergarten spots at top-ranked schools. But at the community-based centers, nearly 20 percent of spaces were unfilled last school year. (Some of the least popular public schools also have openings.)


That’s because too few families know about the program, as the city has not done enough outreach, says Latoya Gayle, former executive director of Boston School Finder, a school-selection tool.

“It was well-intentioned and poorly executed,” Gayle said.

The school prekindergarten lottery happens each winter, while the community centers have their own rolling city application process. The separate admissions have led to a two-tiered, somewhat segregated system: Nearly a quarter of the students in school-based prekindergartens are white — significantly higher than the district’s overall percentage of 15 percent. Yet more than 90 percent of the students at the community-based centers are children of color.

Boston should merge the registration systems so families can choose among all their options across settings, Gayle said.

Advocates say the city should advertise in multiple languages in places parents frequent, such as community organizations, churches, food banks, and supermarkets.

“It’s a little-known fact in Black and brown communities that [free] pre-K is available,” Bazile said. “The district operates from a top-down approach, as opposed to going to the parents.”

The city has advertised on public transit and billboards, and recruited families waitlisted for public school spots, but acknowledges early outreach was minimal as staff focused on educational quality. The program recently hired a marketing director.

“We thought, ‘We’ll create these seats and families will just come,’” said TeeAra Dias, director of Boston’s universal pre-K office. “That hasn’t been the case.”

To attract more families and improve racial equity, the district recently changed the kindergarten assignment system to give community-based pre-K students advantages in getting into popular elementary schools. Previously, only children in school-based programs had such assurances. That led to racial disparities in access to high-quality schools, as many families of color weren’t aware of early registration deadlines.

Almost half of Black kindergartners missed the priority deadline, a rate three times higher than white students, a 2018 study showed.

Families in the new pre-K program say once more parents learn of the seats, the city won’t have trouble filling them.

Tamela Marshall, whose daughter Skyla loves pre-K at Roxbury’s Cooper Community Center, said she only learned about the city’s program because her daughter already attended Cooper.

“When I talk about what my child’s doing, people are like, ‘Wow, I wish I had known about that,’ ” Marshall said. “It’s a really good program — I would like to see more day care settings be able to offer it to Boston’s families.”

Skyla Withers, 5, left, and Giovanni Gamble, 5, played with other children at the Cooper Community Center in Roxbury.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.