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Panel recommended city take lead on preschool network

Dayami Calderon (left), 5, reacted as Mayor Marty Walsh posed for a photo with her and classmate Angiely Avelone, 4, at the Patrick J. Kennedy School in 2014.
Dayami Calderon (left), 5, reacted as Mayor Marty Walsh posed for a photo with her and classmate Angiely Avelone, 4, at the Patrick J. Kennedy School in 2014.John Tlumacki/Globe staff/file/Globe Staff

An advisory committee on universal preschool established by Mayor Martin J. Walsh recommended that the city take the lead in creating and funding a public-private network of preschools of consistently high quality — but 15 months later he has yet to initiate such a partnership.

Walsh, who received the recommendations at the end of 2014, kept the report under wraps, claiming it was exempt from public disclosure law. A summary of the committee’s findings was provided last week, after the Globe successfully appealed to the state Supervisor of Public Records.

In the meantime, the mayor beseeched Governor Charlie Baker in his second State of the City address to invest dramatically in preschool, a request so far rebuffed. And two weeks ago, the city scaled back its own additional funding for preschool — one of several budget adjustments made to stave off program cuts fiercely opposed by older students.

At the same time, the city’s five early learning centers, which serve students in the youngest grades, are being required to slash spending by a total of $900,000 next year. Those cuts will mostly trim staffing for programs before and after school that are provided free to families, school officials said Friday.

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The mayor was not made available for an interview. Asked whether his administration was sending a mixed message about its commitment to preschool funding, Walsh’s chief of education, Rahn Dorsey, said, “I think understandably it’s a mixed message. But what I want people to understand is there’s actually an increased investment of $2 [million] to $3 million in there. That is comparable, if not a little bit more, than we invested last year.”

The reduction in additional preschool funding was just one of the changes Boston Public Schools made after a massive student protest over significant cuts to the high school budget. The School Department decided to delay about $6 million on new programs, including $1 million of the $4 million planned for preschool seats.

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But Boston Public School Superintendent Tommy Chang reiterated that funding for early education is still being increased overall and that 200 more 4-year-olds will go to Boston Public Schools next year. This year, 2,467 4-year-olds are attending.

“This isn’t about younger kids vs. older kids,” Chang said. “This is about making sure that we are making the right investments into the right places. ... Ultimately, we want to make sure that we put Boston Public Schools in a place financially where we could sustain and provide the type of programming all students deserve.”

With an increasing focus on preschool as a means of closing the opportunity gap, early education advocates have been hoping for adoption of a more sweeping program like the one instituted by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. As a candidate, Walsh, elected in the same campaign cycle as de Blasio, had even floated the idea of selling City Hall to developers in order to pay for expanded preschool.

In May 2014, Walsh tapped nearly 30 people for his Universal Pre-K Advisory Committee, tasked with exploring expanding preschool and ways to implement it. The committee submitted its draft recommendations in December 2014. But a year later, Walsh declined to release those findings to the Globe, saying the committee’s work was not final and was exempt from public release.

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After the Globe filed a public records request, the city still declined to provide the findings, asserting the committee’s work was exempt under the deliberative process exemption of the public records law. That exemption covers documents on policy positions being developed by an agency but does not apply to “reasonably completed factual studies or reports on which the development of such policy positions has been or may be based.”

The Globe appealed to the state supervisor of public records, who ordered the city to provide the report or to explain “with specificity” how the exemption applied.

The Walsh administration last week provided the Globe the summary of the committee’s findings. The full report will be issued by March 31, the administration said.

In its summary, the committee notes that the city already has near-universal access to preschool — but that’s only if one counts every private preschool, Head Start center, parochial classroom, and family child care program, in addition to the public schools. The committee acknowledged that many of those child-care providers are not preparing children for school effectively and that no central agency exists to assess and review the quality of the programs.

As a result, the committee suggested that the city launch an initiative.

“So that there is appropriate leadership, authority and accountability, the city should invest in the design and establishment of an infrastructure to implement and oversee” a system focused on high quality, the committee stated.

“The baton is handed more to the mayor to figure out how he wants to fund it,” Jason Sachs, co-chairman of the committee, said in an interview. Sachs is also Boston Public Schools’ director of early childhood education.

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In December, the mayor told the Globe that it could cost as much as $56 million to make quality full-day preschool available to all the city’s 4-year-olds. The committee’s summary does not specify a figure but Dorsey said the final report will.

The summary findings noted that the preschools that already exist in Boston vary in per-student costs and called for a more detailed analysis of what it would cost to provide high-quality programming across all programs.

The committee also called for the city to coordinate with other community-based efforts to increase state and federal investment. Dorsey said the city’s advocacy has “ramped up” and that city officials have engaged in meetings with the governor’s office as well as House and Senate leaders.

Although the additional funding for preschool in the city’s proposed budget is not as large as expected, Sachs said the schools still expect to open about 10 more preschool classrooms next year — down from the 13 anticipated.

Asked how he regards the city’s commitment to expanding preschool, Sachs said the superintendent “had to make some really hard choices” with the budget.

“I think it’s a reasonable compromise where he ended up,” Sachs said. “But there’s just not enough resources to do everything in this budget climate.”


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.

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