BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Leighton Harris, 4, sat with her classmates on a rug before a whiteboard. One of her two teachers praised the little girl’s calm, attentive posture: “I love how Leighton is sitting.” A year before the start of kindergarten, Leighton is well-prepared, having already practiced not just her letters and numbers, but also subtle skills key for school success, such as breathing through stress and the art of sitting quietly and listening.
The prekindergarten program at the state-of-the-art James Rushton Early Learning Center is also a lifeline for Leighton’s mom, Dameka Turner, a single mother of three, who works at a medical call center. Thanks to Alabama’s growing investments in early education, the state’s pre-K system is among the nation’s best.
And it’s free.
“When you’re trying to work and make money, or do anything else that’s important,” Turner said, “you can’t get it done without good, affordable child care.”
Try finding anything like it in most parts of Massachusetts — birthplace of public schools; home to Harvard and MIT; proudly progressive. Alabama is, to say the least, not where Bay Staters would look for a model of early childhood education.
But while Alabama ranks much lower than Massachusetts on most education metrics, experts say it is serving its children and families far better in at least one important area: prekindergarten.
Most families in Massachusetts, unless they happen to snag one of few public pre-K seats, face paying an average of $15,000 per year to give their children access to high-quality learning opportunities in the crucial year before kindergarten. Tens of thousands of families each year can’t access pre-K at all, or can only afford low-quality options. As a result, many lower-income children start kindergarten behind their more affluent peers, a disparity that often persists throughout their school years.
Massachusetts prides itself on having its schools top some national rankings on test scores, but that glow can obscure the gaps. Large swaths of low-income students and students of color are left behind from a young age due to the state’s uneven access to early education, which enriches children when their developing brains are spongiest, say experts, making it a critical tool in closing achievement gaps.
Studies have found that children who attend high-quality pre-K grow up to have better high school graduation and college attendance rates, less criminal activity, and higher salaries. Alabama’s program is still young, but research already shows promising results: Students who attended the state’s pre-K were less likely than their peers to later be chronically absent, need special education services, or be held back a grade — and as middle-schoolers, they were more likely to read and perform math at grade level.
“You can’t solve it unless you put money towards it,” said Wendy Robeson, an early education researcher at Wellesley College. “It’s so important to provide a child with a good beginning.”
It is an investment in the future that Massachusetts isn’t now making as much as other states. During the past two decades, the state’s per-pupil spending on pre-K has declined, from $8,100 per enrolled child in 2002 to $2,800 per child in 2020, after adjusting for inflation, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. Alabama, where the median household income is 38 percent lower, spends $6,000 per child.
Enrollment in Massachusetts’ public pre-K has, nonetheless, grown to include 30 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds, or 21,600 children, up from 12 percent in 2002. Enrollment and funding stayed relatively steady last year, and prior years’ funding increases weren’t significant enough to keep pace with the increase of students and boost per-child spending.
In Alabama, the state increased its funding for pre-K by 26 percent last year, and by 16 to 20 percent in previous years. Enrollment has grown from 1 percent of Alabama’s 4-year-olds in 2002 to 44 percent this year, officials said, and is on track to reach at least 70 percent by 2026.
“States like Alabama have come together to make this commitment,” said Amy O’Leary, executive director of the Boston-based early education advocacy group Strategies for Children. In Massachusetts, she said, “We have to stop saying we support this as a state and then not having it show up in the budget.”
The pandemic has brought new urgency to the issue: As child-care seats grow scarcer, due to struggling day-care businesses and worker shortages, the workforce takes a major hit. Many parents are forced to cut hours or quit jobs to stay home with their children. A group of Massachusetts lawmakers and early education advocates are pushing for legislation called the Common Start bill, which would cap families’ child-care costs at 7 percent of their income.
An infusion of federal funds remains possible. President Biden’s $2.2 trillion Build Back Better package, which includes money for pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, is in peril in Congress. But Biden is reportedly exploring other options to make good on his campaign pledge for universal pre-K.
With federal money, Massachusetts could expand its pre-K and learn from Alabama’s success. Alabama’s model, like Massachusetts’, channels government funding into both public schools and private child-care centers — and does it in a way that allows the private centers to remain financially viable. In New York City, rapid expansion of pre-K led to an estimated loss of about 2,700 infant and toddler private day-care slots, largely in poor neighborhoods.
On pre-K measures, Alabama ranks among the top states on quality, in part by offering teachers similar pay regardless of whether they work in a school or a center. Alabama also ensures that pre-K classrooms meet all 10 quality benchmarks espoused by the National Institute for Early Education Research, including ensuring lead teachers have bachelor’s degrees and each teacher oversees no more than 10 students.
By contrast, Massachusetts’ pre-K meets just five of the institute’s 10 quality benchmarks, with wide disparities between programs in public schools and private centers. In schools, pre-K teachers are better trained and higher paid, but classes may exceed the recommended size of 20 children. But in private centers, teachers aren’t required to hold a bachelor’s degree.
Massachusetts early education Commissioner Samantha Aigner-Treworgy declined, through a spokesperson, interview requests. Her department said in a statement the state has “taken a unique approach to driving innovation” through the Commonwealth Preschool Partnership Initiative, which provides grants to cities such as Boston, Lowell, and Holyoke to support high-quality preschool expansions in public and private settings. But much of the $10 million program’s grants are for planning, not seats.
The cost of high-quality, full-day pre-K in Massachusetts is significantly higher than in Alabama, at $14,755 per child compared to $9,624. Still, Massachusetts is a much wealthier state. The Alabama pre-K program requires communities to provide 25 percent of funding, and some programs charge tuition to parents from higher-income brackets.
The stakes are high, Massachusetts leaders say, carrying ramifications for the state’s workforce now and in the future.
“I hesitate to say that our system is broken because it’s not sufficiently existent to even call it broken,” said state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Boston Democrat running for governor on a promise of expanding early education. “It’s within reach, but if we fail to do it, we’re perpetuating massive racial and economic disparities in our state that begin in these years.”
At the Rushton Center in Birmingham, a 16,000-square-foot facility where families enter through a bright and airy lobby, children spend time outdoors in a shaded courtyard with play structures. Classrooms are stocked with wooden furniture, easels, sinks, and cozy couches. Lunches are prepared by an in-house chef with a culinary degree. The center serves a mixed-income population and supplements its state pre-K funding with donations, state vouchers, and tuition.
In the center’s pre-K classroom, lessons on managing emotions blend with traditional academics. One morning this fall, a little boy named Quincy raised his voice in frustration after being asked to clean up. Teacher Lakiera Christian called to him gently from across the room: “Breathe, smile, and take a deep breath.” He complied and instantly relaxed, his shoulders dropping as he exhaled.
For Turner, the program has made a huge difference.
Her daughter, Leighton, was slow to build a wide vocabulary, until she began attending the center. Turner said the 4-year-old has also developed more self-confidence, closer relationships with other children, and deeper interest in books.
“I like to read to my kids, and now she tries to read to me,” said Turner.
Turner pays nothing for pre-K; after-school care at the center — she picks up Leighton around 5 p.m. — costs $140 per month.
Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, working parents can barely imagine a world with easy access to affordable pre-K. Instead, they count down the years until their kids turn 5 and crushing day-care bills recede.
In Marshfield, Kerri Lunney, 32, and her family are barely scraping by on about $2,000 a month, but don’t qualify for a state subsidy. Their 4-year-old daughter McKinley qualified for a free pre-K slot in a public elementary school because she has a speech delay; otherwise, they would not be able to afford preschool.
The public school program only runs from 9 to 11:30 a.m., four days a week. Lunney and her husband, both massage therapists, struggle to work enough hours to support their family of six.
“My friends with kids told me my day-care bill would be like another mortgage, and I laughed it off,” Lunney said. “But when I saw it for myself, it was like a punch to the gut.”
The Lunneys are among thousands of Massachusetts families who can’t access adequate early education because they earn too much to qualify for a state subsidy, yet not enough to afford private tuition.
Jennifer Curtis, executive director of South Shore Stars, an early education provider in Quincy, Randolph, and Weymouth, said her organization routinely hears from desperate families who can’t afford tuition but end up being ineligible for subsidies.
“It points to a system that’s not working,” Curtis said.
Massachusetts is the second-most expensive state in the nation for this type of care, yet educators are often paid little more than minimum wage. Massachusetts is one of 13 states where preschool teachers in all settings earn less than half what kindergarten teachers make, federal data show. The median preschool teacher salary was $38,563 in 2020.
The low pay fuels a punishing cycle of labor shortages, further limiting capacity in the system.
Even when a family qualifies for a voucher, they must sit on a lengthy waitlist until funding becomes available: In October alone, there were 14,810 families waiting for a child-care voucher, officials said. Then they must find a preschool that accepts vouchers and has an opening; many centers don’t take vouchers because they pay less than private tuition.
Even though many state lawmakers have pushed for it for years, the Massachusetts Legislature has not approved significant new funding to add more early education seats.
So how did Alabama, a much poorer state, get it done? The key to funding the pre-K program was engaging business leaders, the Legislature, and the governor, said Allison Muhlendorf, executive director of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance.
In 2012, the alliance convened business leaders to craft a 10-year plan for universal pre-K and help lobby lawmakers. Companies in sectors from life insurance to construction supported the cause because the research suggested that as pre-K students grew up, Alabama would gain a more qualified workforce.
The program has enjoyed vocal support from several governors, including current Governor Kay Ivey, a former educator.
“You’ve got to identify the source of funding, the end game, and the end date,” Muhlendorf said. “We wouldn’t have made any of this progress without that.”
Massachusetts may follow a similar playbook. Last February, business leaders launched the Massachusetts Business Coalition for Early Childhood Education. A new legislative commission on early education will publish recommendations in March.
For families, help can’t come soon enough. In Marshfield, the six-member Lunney family lives in a relative’s crowded home, unable to afford their own place. They dream of having more space and of growing their careers, but they feel stuck, unable to work more until their kids grow older.
“The goal is to add more hours,” Kerri Lunney said, “but that will be hard to do until they’re all in school.”