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Two views on universal pre-kindergarten education

Chris Martes.
Chris Martes.Handout

Yes

Chris Martes, of Easton, president and CEO of Strategies for Children, a nonprofit education advocacy group based in Boston

According to national reports, children have a great opportunity to thrive in Massachusetts. We are a leader in the nation on many child health and educational indicators, including ranking first in fourth grade reading proficiency – a key benchmark for future success in school.

But we still have plenty of work to do. Despite our top ranking, 53 percent of our children do not meet the standard for proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress for fourth grade reading. Results aren’t much better on MCAS, with 43 percent of third-graders, and 61 percent of children from low-income families, scoring below proficient in reading this year.

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What’s worse, these scores have been stagnant for years.

The achievement gap, which takes root in infancy, is much discussed by education reformers, and is well documented. This gap is the result of an opportunity gap that leaves many young children without the early supports, programs, and experiences that prepare young children for kindergarten.

So what should we do to close these gaps?

Massachusetts should follow the lead of states like New Jersey and make a sizeable new investment in high-quality, voluntary pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds.

High-quality early education has been shown to have short- and long-term impact on children’s educational, health, social, and economic outcomes. Yet in Massachusetts, we have not invested much in the pre-k space, choosing to leave the “kindergarten readiness” challenge up to parents to figure it out on their own. The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2014 KIDS COUNT Data Book shows that 42 percent, or 62,000, preschool-age Massachusetts children are not attending preschool. Imagine if that many kids didn’t attend fourth grade or eighth grade.

Kindergarten readiness is about starting early to support and develop the whole-child: social/emotional skills, vocabulary, early math, executive function, creativity, and a love of learning. The best pre-kindergarten programs do this, but Massachusetts has not yet devoted enough public funding to ensure that all young children can access them.

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In the end, this debate comes down to a simple choice: We can invest early, or pay later. For Massachusetts to be great, we must close the achievement gap in education by investing in our youngest learners.

Nancy Galllivan.
Nancy Galllivan.Handout

No

Nancy Gallivan, vice chairwoman of the Walpole School Committee

Currently the pre-kindergarten to 12th grade public education system in Massachusetts is financially over-extended. Before adding any more requirements, the state needs to be able to pay its share of the actual costs of health insurance, special education, and technology costs in the foundation budget, the minimum spending the state requires in a school district.

The health of Massachusetts’ economy relies on a strong public education system. Yet, the needs of individual cities and towns vary. Universal pre-school may be the most pressing need in one town and a far lesser priority in another. Especially when funds are limited, it is best when these decisions are made at the local levels. Our public education system is the best in the country and compares very favorably to the most successful countries.

In recent years, the proportion of the cost-share between local and state funding of education has shifted significantly toward the local governments. The consequences of adding burdens to the local property tax have played out in different ways including layoffs, overrides, union concessions, and severe strains on local services. Even if the state were to fully fund the cost of a pre-school initiative – an unlikely scenario, based on past experience – local districts might have other more pressing needs for those resources. Closing the achievement gap, challenging high achievers, and maintaining a comprehensive curriculum are equally important, and we need to trust the local professionals and elected officials to know their communities best.

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Currently, across Massachusetts, students with special needs receive free pre-school services beginning on their third birthday and, frequently, they are served through early intervention programs up to that age. The state also provides grants to expand access to affordable, high-quality early childhood care and education. But the families of tens of thousands of children are able to afford the cost of sending them to high-quality day-care centers, and as a state we should not shift those costs onto the local property taxpayers. Instead, we should strengthen the connections between all providers and share resources to serve this important need. Additional state investment in education is sorely needed, but local decisions will provide the best results.

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. He can be reached at laidler@globe.com.


As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. He can be reached at laidler@globe.com.