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The path to universal pre-kindergarten

Boston’s next mayor must see through the expansion and improvement of early childhood education.

Sophia Moon sits with her four-year-old daughter Ariana Sophia Crowson on her first day of remote learning as a Boston Public Schools pre-kindergartener in September.
Sophia Moon sits with her four-year-old daughter Ariana Sophia Crowson on her first day of remote learning as a Boston Public Schools pre-kindergartener in September.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

In 2013, Harvard researchers published a head-turning study on Boston’s pre-kindergarten program.

The children had made impressive gains in language, literacy, math, executive function, and emotional regulation skills; some of the effects were the biggest ever recorded in a study of a large scale pre-K program.

The findings brought a parade of visitors to town and added heft to mayoral candidate Marty Walsh’s pledge to expand access to early education to all of the city’s 4-year-olds.

But eight years later, Boston hasn’t realized the full promise of its early-education program.

It’s still not accessible to all, and there is work to be done to sustain the gains pre-kindergarten students are making into kindergarten, first grade, and beyond.


And with Walsh off to Washington to serve as US labor secretary, it will be up to the next full-fledged mayor — be it Acting Mayor Kim Janey, if she runs for a full term and wins, or one of the declared candidates — to finish the job.

Indeed, a pandemic that’s pushed too many women out of the workforce, and pulled too many kids out of classrooms, has put early education where it should have been all along: near the top of the agenda.

Walsh’s legacy on early education has been defined, in no small part, by his failure to secure state funding for a major pre-kindergarten expansion. And some of the criticism may be deserved. He was a state legislator, after all, before he became mayor, and lobbying Beacon Hill was supposed to be his forte.

But Walsh did make some important progress. With the help of a federal grant, he was able to increase the number of city-funded pre-kindergarten slots for 4-year-olds from 2,439 to 3,425 over the course of his tenure.

How many more slots does the city need? That’s hard to say. Right now, there are seats for about half of the 4-year-olds in Boston.


But not every 4-year-old needs one. Many families prefer to keep their kids at home or pay out of pocket for a favored private program.

With hundreds on wait lists at the most coveted schools, though, it seems clear there is room for growth. And expanding the program — while keeping a focus on quality — would probably gin up demand even further; one study of several universal pre-kindergarten programs found that, on average, 71 percent of eligible children participated.

An infusion of state money would be enormously helpful — both in expanding pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds and building on a much smaller program for 3-year-olds. And the next mayor should get squarely behind a new push by advocates for a major Beacon Hill investment in early education.

But the city can’t count on the state to come through. So it’s important for the new mayor to set aside more city funding for early education and getting Boston closer to a truly universal program.

The city will also have to improve on a fractured admissions system that has proved especially difficult for low-income families to navigate. A one-stop website for parents with information on openings, as some mayoral candidates have proposed, would be an improvement.

But as the city buttresses its system for 3- and 4-year-olds, it will have to keep an eye on kindergarten, first, and second grade, too.


Research has long shown that pre-kindergarten gains tend to fade after a year or two. And when the Harvard study from 2013 put a spotlight on Boston’s pre-kindergarten program, the big question was whether the city would face the same issue.

Subsequent studies found that Boston did, indeed, have a fade-out problem — at least in the aggregate. But the research showed the city’s highest-quality elementary schools were able to sustain the pre-kindergarten gains. And the Boston Public Schools’ highly regarded early-education team is in the midst of a years-long effort to build up kindergarten and early elementary school quality across the system.

The next mayor needs to see that effort through.

Because while an expansion of pre-kindergarten has plenty of intrinsic worth — ask any parent with young children who needs to work — Boston will realize the true potential of its early-education program only if it continues to emphasize the rigor that brought it national acclaim.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.