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Mayoral candidate Michelle Wu calls for universal preschool, city office coordinating early education

Boston City Councilor-at-Large Michelle Wu took her sons, Blaise Pewarski, 6, and Cass Pewarski, 3, on a practice walk to the Charles Sumner School.
Boston City Councilor-at-Large Michelle Wu took her sons, Blaise Pewarski, 6, and Cass Pewarski, 3, on a practice walk to the Charles Sumner School.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Mayoral candidate and City Councilor at Large Michelle Wu Tuesday will release an ambitious plan to create universal preschool and affordable child care for Boston children younger than 5 through a centralized city office that would guide parents through both processes.

Massachusetts is the second most expensive state in the country for child care, with costs rivaling that of home mortgages or college tuition. But high-quality early education delivers a solid return on investment that prepares children for later educational success, Wu said.

“We need to move away from an outdated archaic way of thinking about families and who bears the responsibilities for absorbing these costs,” Wu said in an interview. “The science shows that these are the most critical days and months of development in a child’s life.”

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Wu’s focus on the issue coincides with a shift in political emphasis on early education, which was long considered a problem for each individual working mother. Now, it’s being positioned as a public good that requires public investment. US Senator Elizabeth Warren, Wu’s political mentor, made early education part of her presidential campaign platform. But the issue’s urgency has grown as a result of the pandemic as women were forced out of the workplace and child care-centers closed, further squeezing availability and driving up costs.

In just the past few weeks, President Biden proposed a $40 billion bailout for child care. Two weeks ago, legislators and a statewide coalition of activists and business leaders launched a campaign for a universal early education system that would receive public funding like K-12 schools. And City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who is also running for mayor, last week called for a council hearing on the status of universal pre-K in Boston and a comprehensive plan to create universal early education from birth to 5 years old.

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When he ran for mayor in 2013, Martin J. Walsh promised to provide free, quality pre-K for all. Eight years later, BPS still only covers about half of the city’s 6,400 4-year-olds. The system is viewed as both cumbersome and inequitable for families who have to research an array of schools and then compete for them by lottery with no guarantee of acceptance. Wu said the system creates unnecessary confusion and stress for families and perpetuates racial inequities.

“This is a common sense high priority for the city of Boston and I’m going to tackle this with the urgency of a mother,” Wu added.

Wu and Campbell are each mothers of two young boys in the city, and neither is immune to the frustrations of the current Byzantine system.

Campbell’s 3-year-old son, Alexander, didn’t get into a Boston public school this year; his neighborhood, Mattapan, didn’t even offer the recommended five options of schools from which to choose.

Wu’s older son, Blaise, now 6, initially couldn’t get into pre-Kindergarten and ended up on a waiting list, then volleyed back and forth from a private preschool while BPS miscommunicated with Wu about availability. Wu’s younger son lost the lottery for 3-year-olds this year; she’s hoping he’ll get into a class for 4-year-olds next year.

“My family is in that limbo right now,” Wu said.

Wu’s experience led her to propose that the city establish an Office of Early Education and Care that would serve as a one-stop shop for Boston parents — staffing a multilingual website and phone line to help families seeking care for children of all ages and to provide real-time data on the availability of both child care and preschool openings.

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Wu proposes to boost the supply of child-care providers by offering rent-free space in municipal and public buildings and giving in-home providers help with rent or start-up costs. She also proposes creating a new early education track at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, where students in training could support local families.

An existing zoning regulation could be expanded to compel more commercial developers to provide space for child care in new projects, Wu proposes. The program is now limited to certain square footage thresholds and areas of the city.

Wu did not provide a cost estimate for her plan — the key point that left the Walsh administration with sticker shock when a committee estimated his more limited proposal could cost $56 million. Wu waved off concern that her vision could similarly prove cost-prohibitive by pointing to the costs of inaction.

“We can’t afford to pretend that what families are bearing right now is sustainable,” Wu said.

Campbell, who recently released her education platform, has also proposed designating a city appointee to set the agenda for children from birth through age 5 and creating technology for parents to conveniently search options.

“Right now, as a parent, you have to navigate the state, the city, sometimes health care providers who provide certain services,” Campbell said. “There are a lot of families that don’t know where to go. We can own that in the city of Boston. We can make a one stop shop.”

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Two additional candidates running for mayor — City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George and State Representative Jon Santiago — entered the race more recently and have not released detailed platforms on early education. But Essaibi George, a former Boston Public Schools teacher, has called for urgent relief for the existing child- care system.


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.