Business

shirley leung

Mass. may finally be getting serious about early education

Only 13 percent of children who are 3 to 5 years old receive state or federal grants for preschool in Massachusetts.

Bill Brett for The Boston Globe/File 2012

Only 13 percent of children who are 3 to 5 years old receive state or federal grants for preschool in Massachusetts.

Is Massachusetts getting serious about early education?

Imagine my surprise coming back from a meeting Wednesday with gubernatorial candidate Jay Gonzalez on his early education platform to find in my in-box that Governor Charlie Baker also cares about expanding preschool access.

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Miraculously, Baker found $28 million in a tight state budget to propose the biggest boost in a decade to help child-care centers that serve low-income families. Last summer, he vetoed part of a similar measure.

Then there’s House Speaker Bob DeLeo, who has been rallying business leaders to get behind improving the quality of early education by smartly making it a future workforce issue. Studies have shown that kids in preschool programs have a higher chance of graduating from high school, obtaining a college degree, and getting a job.

Senate President Stan Rosenberg is also all over the topic. A year ago, he launched an ambitious “Kids First” initiative, with the initial phase focused on policy issues related to early childhood development.

This is progress — but we still have a long way to go.

Access to early education programs is not just a workforce issue but one that can help working families who find themselves teetering on the financial edge just so they can educate their young kids. The average cost for full-day care is about $17,000 annually for an infant and nearly $13,000 for a 4-year-old.

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For many families, the child-care bill is a second mortgage.

By and large, it is a fend-for-yourself system. Only 13 percent of children who are 3 to 5 years old receive state or federal grants for preschool in Massachusetts. The waiting list to receive such subsidies: more than 14,700 names.

That’s where Gonzalez comes in. Early education is such a priority that it will be the Democrat’s first policy initiative as a candidate.

Now Gonzalez may seem like just another politician jumping on the preschool-for-all wagon, but he has been steeped in the issue since 2014, when then-governor Deval Patrick appointed him chairman of the state board of early education. Gonzalez, who had served as Patrick’s administration and finance secretary, spent close to a year on the board before Baker appointed a new chair.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/File 2017

Jay Gonzalez wants to deepen the pool of preschool workers by increasing state subsidies for them and strengthening training and development programs. He is running for governor.

Gonzalez continued his work on early education by getting involved with DeLeo’s business advisory group. Gonzalez was the CEO of CeltiCare Health until he resigned in December to launch his gubernatorial bid.

“This is where we can have the biggest impact on a kid’s success,” Gonzalez said.

He gives a lot of credit to DeLeo, who has pushed for more state funding to boost teacher pay. The speaker is expected to do that again this budget cycle.

Early education programs are only as good as the teachers, and the annual turnover rate is about 30 percent. That’s because the average salary of a preschool teacher is about $25,000 a year, while public school teachers start at roughly $45,000.

Gonzalez wants to deepen the pool of preschool workers by increasing state subsidies for them and strengthening training and development programs.

The candidate is aiming not only to eliminate the waiting list but also to expand the number of families who qualify for government assistance for preschool.

Currently, a family of three can make no more than $77,000 a year.

Gonzalez thinks a lot more families would send their kids to preschool if the price was right. About 30 percent of preschool age children are unschooled, according to Strategies for Children, an early education advocacy group.

What ends up happening is one working parent — often the mom — opts to stay home because it makes more financial sense.

Long-term, that has implications for mom’s career — a gap in her resume that could depress her lifetime earning power.

Gonzalez is short on specifics about how much higher he would raise the income requirement for assistance and how many more children could get access as a result. He didn’t have a price tag, other than to say that a comprehensive early education plan would cost in the “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

The state budget for early education is about $565 million.

“We have been tinkering around the edges,” Gonzalez said. “It’s going to be a lot. I am going to be totally honest with people about that, but I really believe in the return on the investment.”

Gonzalez does have a plan to pay for it all, which is to support a proposed state ballot initiative to raise taxes on those who earn more than $1 million annually. The measure, which may appear on the 2018 ballot, could generate as much as an additional $2.2 billion.

Even if the measure fails, Gonzalez would find a way to pay for his plan, he said.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Governor Charlie Baker.

Now what Massachusetts has to hope for is that the momentum for affordable child care picks up in Washington. The new administration, led by first daughter Ivanka Trump, is pushing for more tax credits for families to offset day-care costs.

Another idea that is making the rounds comes from a recent report from the Brookings Institution. Russ Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the think tank, wrote about how the country could vastly expand access for lower-income families by reducing the deduction for charitable contributions.

Under the proposal, a qualifying family would get on average about $10,000 per child to pay for early education. The federal government spends about $26 billion annually on early education programs, and Whitehurst’s idea would need an additional $16 billion. The hit to the federal budget would be offset by the less generous allowances for charitable deductions.

Making early education affordable is having its moment. Let’s not lose the momentum.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.
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