Opinion

Opinion | Michelle Wu

Boston families need greater access to early education

East Boston, MA - 10/26/17 - Angel Miguel Salinas Guevara (cq) raises his hand in the kindergarten Sheltered English Immersion program at the Patrick J. Kennedy Elementary School in East Boston.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Students in the kindergarten Sheltered English Immersion program at the Patrick J. Kennedy Elementary School in East Boston.

There is overwhelming consensus among families, educators, doctors, and academics that early childhood education is critical. But this year, more than a thousand 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds signed up to enroll in Boston Public Schools and couldn’t get a spot.

My older son, Blaise, is one of those kids.

The School Department estimates demand of about 4,500 students per grade in grades K-12, but early childhood seats are not guaranteed and are in short supply.

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Blaise will turn 4 this December, a few months too late to join the school lottery for the district’s approximately 3,000 seats for 4-year-olds. So we entered the lottery for the fewer than 200 seats for 3-year-olds available across the entire city. With long odds, we expected that rejection letter to come. But it still stung — another year of paying for child care, a tough decision about where to enroll him this fall, and the realization that we’ll need to enter the lottery all over again next year. We know that many parents across the city feel similarly, and not just at early childhood grades.

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My family is lucky to have had other options, and we are excited that Blaise will join the full-day, full-year pre-K program at Sacred Heart, a parochial school within walking distance of our home. But too many families struggle to find and afford options, and everyone loses out. Every dollar invested in quality early education for our youngest Bostonians — our future workforce and community leaders — sees a tenfold return in health care and public safety costs avoided, future earnings, and family stability.

We must find funding to make that investment. Mayor Walsh filed legislation to close the $30 million gap for universal pre-K by redirecting a portion of the tourism taxes generated in Boston; the proposal received full support from the City Council but now sits at the state Legislature awaiting action. Other cities have identified funding through social impact bonds or ballot initiatives to drive momentum. House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senator Elizabeth Warren have also prioritized funding for early education and care, securing increases in our state and federal budget. But funding is not the only barrier.

Last year, councilors Andrea Campbell, Annissa Essaibi George, Ayanna Pressley, and I came together to focus on increasing access to quality early education. Building on the research and recommendations of the mayor’s Advisory Committee on Universal Pre-Kindergarten, we convened families, caregivers, and researchers on challenges ranging from disparities in early education workforce pay to child-care access for families experiencing homelessness, geographic inequities, cost barriers, and more.

We heard repeatedly that better data and information could help shape policy and access. Boston should take the lead on tracking and evaluating the quality of programs so parents know their options and policy makers have baselines for action.

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Guaranteeing a seat for every child is surprisingly complicated. Early childhood education is not a singular system — it is a constellation of public, community-based, nonprofit, and corporate providers. Because infant care is more expensive than toddler education, given mandated ratios of fewer children per caregiver, community providers often depend on tuition from 3- and 4-year-olds to subsidize infant care. Rather than implement a universal pre-K program solely with public school seats, we should launch an effort to tie together the universe of quality private and community-based providers, in addition to public schools. We need significant public investment in training and salaries to raise up the early-education workforce across all sectors, as well as careful coordination on curriculum and enrollment.

This is an issue of gender parity and income inequality — for the undercompensated early education workforce, primarily women of color, and the parents, disproportionately moms, who need care the most. This requires planning and funding, and we can’t start soon enough.

Without these reforms, we do not have equal access in Boston. Families with resources, like mine, can navigate the system. But too many families cannot. Investing in all of our kids is fundamental for Boston to build the city and community we deserve.

Michelle Wu is an at-large Boston city councilor.