Cambridge will offer free preschool for all the city’s 4-year-olds and some 3-year-olds starting in the fall of 2024, the city announced this week.
The move is aimed at increasing access to high-quality early education in one of Massachusetts’ most expensive cities, home to Harvard and MIT, where private prekindergarten costs $20,000 to more than $30,000 per year.
“Cambridge is known as an education hub in Massachusetts and around the world,” said Lisa Grant, executive director of the Cambridge Office of Early Childhood. “We just know those first five years [of life] are so critical, and ensuring that every child who lives in this community has that strong start was really important.”
Studies show pre-K education can yield long-term academic and behavioral benefits. Students randomly assigned to attend Boston’s pre-K from 1997 to 2003 were significantly more likely to enroll in college than their peers, and more likely to graduate high school, have fewer suspensions, less absenteeism, and fewer legal-system problems, a February MIT study found.
Years in the making, the Cambridge Preschool Program will streamline the process for families seeking prekindergarten by giving them one application to submit for openings in public schools, city-run preschools, private centers, and home-based family child care settings.
Cambridge joins other cities, such as Boston and Springfield, in making free prekindergarten accessible for all children. The school district is diverse, with more than one-third of students coming from low-income households and one-third speaking a first language other than English.
“Every child in Cambridge deserves access to preschool regardless of their family’s income status,” said Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, who called universal preschool a priority for her office.
The new system will open for registration in the coming winter. The city will match families based on their choices and factors such as parents’ home and work addresses, the child’s age, and whether siblings already attend the program, Grant said.
The city will fund teachers’ salaries regardless of where they work. Parents will not be charged any tuition for the 10-month program. In an effort to raise wages for teachers in private settings, the city will fund salaries for all teachers equivalent to the minimum salary for an entry-level public prekindergarten teacher, which is just over $61,000 per year, Grant said.
Cambridge will require all teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and all assistant teachers to have a child development associate credential; the city will support educators who need to attain those certifications in completing them, Grant said.
The city is planning to provide 1,000 slots for 4-year-olds and 200 to 300 slots for 3-year-olds, Grant said. The numbers were partially based on an analysis to estimate the demand for public preschool. The city plans to contract with 25 to 30 private providers.
The new system will mark a big shift from the current one, in which families must navigate many confusing entry points into public pre-K, including a scholarship application and lotteries for 3-year-old slots, for city-run preschools and for the district’s pre-K slots.
Cambridge is projecting to spend about $20 million per year on preschool, money it found in its budget without having to make cuts to other services, officials said. The city has been planning for the new costs by setting aside $10 million in next year’s budget to help start the preschool program the following year.
The city’s strong tax base of commercial and residential property put Cambridge in “a position to allocate funds for critical priorities like universal preschool,” said Ellen Semonoff, assistant city manager for human services.
Cambridge City Manager Yi-An Huang called the money a “significant investment in our families — and the future of Cambridge.”
Early education advocates said funding is often a key obstacle for communities, but they hoped more places would be able to follow Cambridge.
“It’s fantastic,” said Amy O’Leary, executive director of Strategies for Children, an advocacy group. “We hope to see this kind of progress in communities across Massachusetts.”
While some states such as Vermont, Oklahoma, and Alabama have started statewide prekindergarten programs, Massachusetts has not. The state offers grants to communities for planning and implementing preschool expansion. Communities that have received implementation grants include Boston, Springfield, Lawrence, Lowell, Holyoke, North Adams, Somerville, New Bedford, Northampton, Salem, and Framingham.
In Cambridge, the city is paying for a minimum of six hours of pre-K per day and for the academic year; parents who need more hours or summer programs will have the option of paying for that, Grant said. Families will have options for an array of educational approaches, including Montessori and different language immersion programs.
Even families with high incomes struggle to afford child care. Dorothy Heebner, a Cambridge lawyer and mother of an 18-month-old, said the high cost of child care was a major factor for her in deciding when, or if, to have another child.
“This is phenomenal,” Heebner said of Cambridge’s announcement. “This will help people make decisions about their families in the way that they want to, and not based on child care costs, which is awful.”
Registration will open next winter at www.earlychildhoodcambridge.org. Children who will be 4 by Aug. 31, 2024, will be eligible to apply. Children who are 3 by then will be eligible to apply if they also meet other requirements, Grant said, such as having special educational needs or being below a certain income threshold.
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Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.