Massachusetts was recently ranked the number one state in the country by US News and World Report. This was no accident. It comes after decades of great effort by both the public and private sectors, working together, to build a robust economy and a high quality of life. While we excel in many areas, including high tech and health care, we also have room for improvement on many fronts, especially education.
Serious and sustained investments beginning now will make the difference between a student falling through society’s cracks or becoming a healthy, resilient adult helping to drive our economy. The Senate’s Kids First Initiative seeks to make the health, welfare, and education of our youngest residents the Commonwealth’s highest priority. We undertook a thorough evaluation of existing research on best practices and developed a practical blueprint for what we can do now, and in the years to come, even with our constrained fiscal forecast.
This year, the Senate Ways and Means Committee budget invests $34 million in new and targeted programming that supports the health, education, and welfare of our children. Our first priority is to dramatically increase the number of third-graders who are reading at grade level. Third-grade reading level is the greatest predictor of future success, with those students much more likely to stay in school, stay out of jail, and get good-paying jobs. Forty percent of third graders across the Commonwealth do not read at grade level, and that has been true for the last 15 years. The Senate is committed to implementing best practices to cut that percentage in half in 10 years with strategic investments that provide a 13 percent return, and save money in the future with lower unemployment and incarceration rates. Our long-term goal is to create and maintain a pathway to success for all students over time.
Putting students on this path starts early. Early-education programs are a great equalizer for less-advantaged students, but lack of access to affordable, quality early education compromises children of low- and middle-income families. About 20,000 kids are on the wait list for state-subsidized early education and after-school care programs. Even middle-income families with access to these programs struggle to afford them, so the Senate found a way to include a $15.1 million state investment to expand the successful federal Preschool Expansion Grant program. This will put more than 1,000 four-year-olds into all-day, year-round programs instead of keeping them shut out. Bridging the achievement gap starts with bridging the access gap, giving all students the opportunity to learn and excel.
If access opens the door, quality turns on the light. Massachusetts must confront a growing turnover rate for early educators, many of whom do not earn enough to send their own children to programs where they work. For students to receive a quality education, we need to attract and retain talented staff. This session, both the House and the Senate have committed to increasing our support for early educators. The Senate Ways and Means Committee budget adds $10 million to boost salaries and benefits for early educators to support those who, like us, put kids first.
Once the school day ends or summer vacation begins, the achievement gap continues to widen for students. While higher-income students may spend their summers in enrichment programs, lower-income students may undergo “summer-slide,” losing crucial ground in reading skills and readiness. Some students, such as English-language learners or students with disabilities, simply need more time throughout the year. Six hours a day for 180 days will no longer serve the needs of every unique student. Investing in high-quality after- and out-of-school programs can ensure the readiness of all students, regardless of their family income.
Putting kids first means looking to the needs of the whole child, not just the student in the classroom. How can any student succeed academically if they begin their day hungry, in poor health, or lacking support at home? We must create an integrated continuum of care to assist children in removing obstacles to learning. Putting kids first means putting families first as well. Passing paid family leave and increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit are two other actions we can take to allow families to focus less on budgeting and more on parenting.
All our students deserve not only a world-class education, but a Massachusetts-class education. Let’s turn our common wealth into our shared prosperity — for students now and for our economy for years to come.Stanley Rosenberg is president of the Massachusetts Senate. Sal DiDomenico is a state senator who represents Middlesex and Suffolk counties.