Boston will expand its universal pre-kindergarten program and incorporate family providers into the child care network for the first time, Mayor Michelle Wu announced Wednesday, reaffirming Boston’s commitment to becoming “the most family-friendly city in the country.”
The expansion comes through a $20 million investment by the city’s public schools, its universal pre-K Program, and its Office of Early Childhood to bring more private and nonprofit child care centers into the program.
Boston offers a mixed-delivery model of free, universal preschool, meaning some classrooms are offered in the public schools and others at community preschools that adopt the same standards. The new funding will add just under 1,000 seats for both 3- and 4-year-olds at child care facilities outside the Boston Public Schools. The funding pays for salary increases, training and technical assistance for staff at non-school centers that join the pre-K program, which students attend for free. The city aims to offer high-quality, free preschool to all 4-year-olds.
Wu’s predecessor, Martin J. Walsh, struggled over two terms to fulfill his campaign pledge to provide full universal preschool in Boston. Wu’s expansion will still leave the city well shy of providing enough preschool seats for all 4-year-olds in Boston — around 6,400 — but city officials say many of those children don’t want or need slots in city-led preschool.
Outside the public school system, families often pay dearly for early education. Massachusetts has the second-most expensive child care market in the country, and the pandemic exposed its fragility. It also fueled ambitious efforts to reform the way early education is funded, but the stalling of the Build Back Better bill in Congress last winter halted policymakers’ larger ambitions.
The state Senate is planning to vote Thursday on a measure that would create a new framework for funding early education, but it does not offer the influx of public funding that advocates had sought.
Early education advocates, however, are encouraged that on the city and state level, officials are showing commitments to providing education for children in their earliest years.
“Before people were, I think, more satisfied with tinkering around the edges,” said Amy O’Leary, executive director of Strategies for Children, an advocacy and policy organization. “Now I do think, at every level, we are too far out there in talking about this to not start delivering on this transformation.”
At a news conference outside Acorn Child Care Center in Chinatown, Wu acknowledged that she has yet to achieve one of her primary goals for the Boston Public Schools, a “one-stop shop” where parents can research their preschool options and enroll their children in either school-based or community-based preschool. A mother of two young children, she noted the efforts are “quite personal” for her, having faced a “chaotic, impossible juggle trying to navigate systems of enrollment” at different schools.
“I remember that first day when I got to drop them off at the same school for the first time,” Wu said. “It was life-changing.”
Applications are now available for child care centers to join the universal preschool program. Over the next school year, city officials also plan to meet with early education specialists and family providers to devise standards for such providers to join the city’s early education network. Family care providers work out of their homes with a smaller group of children of varied ages. Officials said their inclusion will be important in a city where they often provide families more flexible hours and options.
“Family child care has long been a vital part of providing flexibility and support to our Boston families,” said the city’s universal pre-K director, TeeAra Dias. “And we want our family child care educators to know that we see you, we hear you, and we’re excited about this partnership. With family child care providers, we’re going to continue to expand how [universal pre-K] can be implemented in various settings while maintaining high quality.”