Long-delayed preschool report advises further study
Two years after Mayor Martin J. Walsh named an advisory panel to come up with a citywide action plan for universal preschool, the committee on Friday released a report scant on details and devoid of cost estimates, calling for further study.
The report excised financial projections that had been prepared for the committee, though the mayor had previously told the Globe it could cost as much as $56 million to provide preschool to all city 4-year-olds. During his State of the City address in January, Walsh asked the state to contribute funding — a request ignored by Governor Charlie Baker.
The Walsh administration received the committee’s recommendations in December 2014, but kept them under wraps, claiming the report was only a draft that was exempt from public disclosure law.
After the Globe successfully appealed to the state supervisor of public records, city officials released a summary in March of this year and said the final report, with cost estimates, would follow by the end of that month.
The price tag is the sticking point for universal preschool, which educators, policymakers, and politicians have supported in theory for years. Early education is considered a potent means of closing the achievement gap, and Boston’s own preschool curriculum has been shown to make a measurable difference in math and language skills.
But one committee member said the administration had “sticker shock” at the cost estimates for the preschool expansion Walsh promised during his 2013 campaign. Much of the money would not even be spent in the Boston Public Schools: The model presented by the committee relies on private preschool programs to enroll the bulk of the new students.
The advisory committee suggested that the city create and lead a public-private partnership that would extend the Boston Public Schools’ nationally recognized preschool model into community preschool programs.
But many of those community programs lack the quality of the public schools and pay teachers on a much lower rate. Elevating teachers’ credentials, pay and the standards of the curriculum would require a massive infusion of funds.
Rahn Dorsey, the mayor’s education chief, told reporters Friday that the estimates are still unclear because the quality levels and needs of individual preschools must be more specifically assessed. Beginning in late summer, the city plans an inventory of Boston’s private preschools.
Also around that time, he said, the city will begin considering how to pay for such an ambitious expansion. “It is clear that new revenue must be identified and secured in order to support both the startup and ongoing costs of a formal and robust UPK system in Boston,” the report notes.
“By about the end of summer, we’ll have a more robust conversation about financial options,” Dorsey said.
The city is not lacking preschool seats, but high-quality ones, the committee concluded. Ninety percent of Boston 4-year-olds are already enrolled in some form of preschool, the report noted. However, committee cochairman Jason Sachs acknowledged that accounts for children in all preschool settings. Some may provide only a few hours of instruction each week.
The advisory committee is calling for preschool to last at least 6.5 hours a day, 180 days a year, like the Boston Public Schools’ preschool classes. The schools have only enough seats for about 2,500 of the city’s estimated 6,000 4-year-olds. Many others attend Head Start programs or subsidized child care programs, or private and nonprofit classes.
To mandate quality, the report calls for degreed, highly trained, and well-compensated teachers, with ongoing coaching and professional development and regular assessments of program quality and child outcomes. It also demands a high-quality curriculum with a focus on literacy and math.
But some parents see a contradiction in the city’s proposal for universal preschool at a time when the Boston Public Schools are cutting budgets for existing early education programs.
The West Zone Early Learning Center is facing a budget cut of 25 percent — even though it’s bringing in 20 new preschoolers next year and providing high-quality care, said parent Danielle Schulman. “If you’re trying to do high-quality pre-K everywhere, you should be expanding what works,” she said.
Dorsey said the advisory committee’s findings were delayed to make sure “that we gave it a thorough read and we could start to respond to the recommendations.”
A new committee will begin the next phase of work next week, though Dorsey could not provide a list of members. Not all had been invited yet, he said.