MILTON — No one can explain why this leafy suburb won the lottery in this year’s state budget, claiming preschool funds no other town was offered.
But there it was — $200,000 earmarked specifically for Milton — in a section of the budget meant for underperforming schools.
Milton’s schools are not underperforming, and few families here had indicated a need for help affording preschool. Of nearly 6,000 low-income families on a state waiting list for preschool aid last summer, only 14 of them lived in Milton.
Yet Milton’s state senator, Brian A. Joyce, was able to claim the funds by merely raising his hand. Joyce requested the money during the budget process as an earmark for a school in his district. It was vetoed by Governor Charlie Baker but restored by a legislative override — a protracted budget process that dragged through the summer.
Milton school administrators weren’t certain they could open the preschool classroom until three weeks before school started.
“They were ordering classroom materials and rugs in mid-August,” said Janet Sheehan, Milton’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and human resources.
This is the way early education is funded in Massachusetts — haphazardly and unevenly, forcing families, schools, and preschool centers to play catch-as-catch-can for early learning opportunities that researchers increasingly consider invaluable in closing the achievement gap.
Some schools offer free preschool, while others charge fees. Some have a limited number of preschool seats, which they dole out by lottery. In Massachusetts, those who don’t get free preschool pay an average $12,000 if they opt for a private alternative — nearly as much as a year’s tuition and fees at the University of Massachusetts.
Last week, it was Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh who raised his hand, asking the state to pay for preschool in the city schools where he believes it can make a real difference. Walsh has estimated the city would need $56 million to serve every 4-year-old in the city. But the governor was noncommittal in his response.
Massachusetts politicians have been talking about expanding early education for years and overwhelmingly support it — as long as someone else is picking up the tab.
The state was a leader in recognizing the value of early education, creating a state agency to oversee it in 2005. But more than a decade later, politicians and policy makers have yet to decide what “universal preschool” should look like or how it should be funded.
Would it serve only the neediest children for whom research shows unequivocal benefits? Would it be offered to every child as a matter of fairness?
Massachusetts officially enacted Universal Pre-K in 2008, with the intention of phasing it in. But the state has made little progress in the years since, as the recession squeezed funding for compulsory elementary and secondary education and made the optional offering for 4-year-olds a distant dream.
Full-day kindergarten isn’t offered in every community, and political leaders are still debating how to pay for that. (Last year Baker vetoed a kindergarten expansion grant program; his veto was overridden.)
In Massachusetts today, “Universal Pre-K” is limited to a $6.3 million grant fund that disperses small sums of money to existing preschools.
YMCAs, Head Start centers, and private preschools win grants in the $50,000 range to supplement teachers’ salaries or to buy classroom supplies. The sprinkling of funds ends up appeasing preschool providers everywhere and satisfying demand nowhere.
The budget for the state Department of Education and Care, when adjusted for inflation, is about the same today as it was when it opened more than a decade ago.
The percentage of children attending preschool hasn’t changed during that time either: Between 60 and 70 percent are served, including those who pay to attend private preschools, according to the advocacy group Strategies for Children. (The estimate can’t be confirmed by the state, which still doesn’t track private preschool enrollment and can’t quantify the demand.)
“Overall, funding for early education has been basically flat over the last 10 years,” said Noah Berger, president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a nonpartisan group that tracks and analyzes the state budget. “There were some increases immediately after 2005 and cuts during the Great Recession and then some modest increases since then. But overall, we’re just about where we started.”
Roughly two-thirds of the department’s budget, he noted, is actually federal money passed through to provide child care to those who can’t afford it. But that funding doesn’t come close to meeting demand, and thousands linger on a wait list.
Most of the debate on Beacon Hill centers on the money the state contributes to whittle down that wait list. But as the state budget has remained tight, advocates who were pushing for universal preschool access quietly lowered their expectations.
Now, rather than free and universal preschool for all, they’re hoping to get free preschool for every 4-year-old in the state’s worst-performing school districts.
The most progress Massachusetts has made in years came by way of a federal grant. Five cities — Boston, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, and Springfield — received nearly $15 million to develop high-quality early education in nonprofit preschools through partnerships with public schools. Many hope it will be a model, because universal preschool would most likely rely on such a collaboration between public and private providers.
“I think there is a general understanding that we simply do not have the capacity to do a complete preschool across the Commonwealth in the public schools,” said Representative Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat who chairs the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education.
Baker seems disinclined to invest heavily in early education in his next budget proposal, which is expected to be as constrained as any in recent years.
Two days after the mayor asked the state to commit to preschool, the governor gave a State of the Commonwealth speech that didn’t mention it. His education agenda called for an expansion of charter schools and committing millions of new dollars to vocational schools.
State education officials declined to be interviewed for this story. Education Secretary James Peyser provided a statement saying the administration has increased education spending and focused resources on the children most at risk.
The governor also declined to answer questions about the issue last week. When questions were raised about the earmark after a press conference, the governor strode quickly down a State House stairwell and out the door without commenting.
A spokeswoman, Elizabeth Guyton, later e-mailed a statement noting Baker had vetoed the funding and suggesting that questions about an earmark should be directed to the lawmaker who sought it.
Joyce, in an e-mail to the Globe, said he sought the funding for preschool after Milton School Committee members visited his office on Beacon Hill in April. They were lobbying legislators to restore full-day kindergarten funding and mentioned the pilot preschool they had opened last year at Tucker Elementary School, a school that qualifies for federal aid based on its proportion of low-income students.
Milton was already offering four different preschool programs, but all are short-day programs, with limited hours.
The new program at Tucker was specifically aimed at “kids who would otherwise be home with grandma,” as one school administrator put it, helping them close the achievement gap they might otherwise face when they entered kindergarten.
Joyce came away impressed after a subsequent visit to the Tucker program, he wrote, so “when it came time for each senator to identify district priorities, I included the pilot program at Tucker as one of my priorities.”
The $200,000 funding allowed Tucker to create a new full-day preschool classroom that runs 10 hours a day, five days a week, and closely tracks each child’s progress. Though the funding came with no strings attached, Milton officials wanted to focus on the children most in need, so they reserved 11 of the 18 seats for low-income students to attend for free.
“In Milton, we have a fairly broad socioeconomic base — children from families who are not well off and children from families who are very well off,” said Glenn Pavlicek, Milton’s assistant superintendent for business affairs. “We weren’t looking for the child that was going to be in a Montessori setting and would do this instead because it was free,’’ he said. “We were really trying to search out children who wouldn’t have any other opportunity.”
Still, educators find it advantageous to have a range of students with different backgrounds in a classroom, so Milton officials offered some seats — by lottery — to families who would pay tuition.
That makes is possible to see the inequities of preschool funding within one public school classroom: Eleven students come to school for free, while four of their classmates pay $8,790 each. Six more families who were willing to pay tuition didn’t get into the lottery; they will be notified if a space opens up at another preschool.
Milton administrators had no trouble finding parents willing to pay that tuition. But low-income families proved difficult to recruit in the three weeks before school started, when most parents had already made arrangements.
School officials couldn’t access the state’s wait list — it’s strictly guarded for privacy concerns — so could not reach out to Milton families who had self-identified as needing help with preschool costs.
To track them down, educators had to work through two different intermediaries — the Milton Early Childhood Alliance, which works with the child care centers in town, and the state’s local child care referral agency, which calls families on the state wait list when a space opens up.
Without learning the families’ names, school officials tried to get messages relayed to them: Call Milton Schools if you’re still interested in free preschool.
They tacked up fliers at the Milton Food Pantry and networked with parents and teachers. Still, they have not been able to find enough low-income 4-year-olds to fill the classroom. At the end of January, three seats are still vacant; one is expected to be filled next month.
Joyce does not agonize over that untapped value to the taxpayers. He said the innovative program could be a model for others around the state and thinks it’s worth waiting to find students who could most benefit.
“I prefer this careful approach as more protective of tax dollars,” Joyce said in the statement.
Asked why Milton deserved to be singled out to get state-financed free preschool, the assistant superintendent responded with largesse.
“Preschool is the new kindergarten,” Pavlicek said. “The value of preschool is undeniable for kids. I don’t want to say we deserve it more than anyone else does. I think everyone deserves it.”
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.