For many years, Massachusetts has enjoyed the unofficial title as the Education State. It is the mecca of American higher education with over 50 universities and colleges in the Boston area alone. Bay State K-12 students rank first in national reading and mathematics test scores. High school graduation rates may not be best in the country but with four in five freshmen receiving diplomas within four years, it is toward the head of the class and well above the national average.
The rankings, however, do not tell the whole story. Although Massachusetts ranks first on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, half of the commonwealth’s fourth graders scored below proficient in reading. Massachusetts also has a large achievement gap. One key to a happy ending is to support preschoolers and early education. Yet according to a landmark national study released recently by the National Institute for Early Education Research, Massachusetts continues to struggle in maintaining its commitment to state funding for high-quality pre-kindergarten. In the long run, this could threaten Massachusetts’s status as the Education State and its accompanying benefits as the achievement gap becomes insurmountable and costly.
The National Institute for Early Education Research’s 2011 report on the state of preschools ranked the state 23rd in funding for pre-kindergarten, compared to eighth a decade ago. It also trailed 27 other states in research-based quality standards, achieving only six of 10. The Universal Pre-Kindergarten grant program, which is designed to support and enhance quality, is currently funded at $7.5 million, down from $12.14 million in fiscal year 2009. The state currently contributes $7.5 million to Head Start, down from $10 million in fiscal 2009. The Department of Early Education and Care is currently funded at $495.16 million, down from $570.58 million in fiscal 2009. The institute’s calculations find a precipitous drop in dollars spent per pre-K child of nearly 45 percent over the past decade and there has been little progress in enrolling more children in quality pre-K programs at a time when the need is escalating. These results are surprising for a state priding itself on its education system.
Massachusetts was one of nine states to win a federal Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant, a $50 million infusion to the state over the next four years. The award shows that the ideas and desire to keep young children in the forefront of education reform are present, if not the state’s allocation of resources.
Over the next four years, plans are to strengthen early education in Massachusetts by addressing quality, standards and assessment, family engagement, workforce development, data systems, and children’s mental health.
Unfortunately, Early Learning Challenge grant funds will not last. Neither are they to be used to supplant state investments. To build on the momentum created by the Early Learning Challenge, Massachusetts must increase investments in high-quality early education. Science and economics both confirm the benefits of investing in quality early education. An overwhelming body of research shows that high-quality pre-K prepares children to succeed in school, enroll in college or career training, and ultimately get better jobs in the increasingly competitive global economy.
For Massachusetts to retain its perceived advantage as the nation’s Education State with its ensuing benefits, policymakers need to change course and make prudent new investments in early education now.
Jim Squires is senior research fellow at the National Institute for Early Education Research.