Universal pre-K the answer? Cambridge can be the test
Among policy makers and educators, there now exists a near-unanimous consensus that the achievement gap and other learning deficiencies take root before a child ever reaches kindergarten. The Cambridge public school system is in the enviable position of being able to be a national leader in offering free access to universal early childhood education. It’s an opportunity that shouldn’t be wasted.
A diverse urban district, Cambridge has never hesitated to embrace innovation. The system has experimented with an extended school day, dual-language education, and balancing school placement by socioeconomic background. At roughly $27,000, the district also had among the highest per-pupil spending in Massachusetts in 2012, according to state education data. Yet, despite this investment, Cambridge students' MCAS scores, at all grade levels, consistently fail to exceed average statewide results.
Assessments like the MCAS shouldn't be the only benchmark for student success, but they're an important one. Cambridge's middling results inevitably raise the question of whether the district is putting its education dollars in the right places.
Today, only Cambridge toddlers who turn 4 before March 31 enroll in pre-kindergarten the following September. Those born between April 1 and Aug. 31 — except for the lucky few who won a spot in one of Cambridge's two sought-after 3-year-old preschool programs — must pay for another year of private schooling or stay home until the following fall.
Over the past year, however, there has been a louder and louder chorus of voices calling to expand that pre-K access to all of Cambridge's 4-year-olds. It is hard to know exactly how much doing so would cost, but the best estimate, based on kindergarten enrollments, is that the district would need to add about 200 additional pre-K slots. But school committee members and city councilors both agree that, if the will exists, Cambridge could afford the added expense. Advocates are pushing Superintendent Jeffrey Young to prioritize pre-K expansion, and he agrees that need is urgent and the value unquestionable. Young, however, is less confident that the district has the funding or classroom space to undertake such an initiative right now.
Young also notes that Cambridge already has a robust collection of private pre-K programs, plus additional city-run preschools that parents pay for. If a space crunch proves to be the barrier that Young describes, perhaps a voucher program to let students choose among these other alternatives might be in order.
As to funding priorities, all evidence suggests that an investment of early childhood education reaps enormous benefits, particularly for low-income kids. States where some version of universal pre-K currently exists — Oklahoma, Georgia, and Florida — have demonstrated serious gains in reading, writing, and math skills. In Cambridge, kindergarten teachers report, unsurprisingly, that students who enter school at age 5 require significant remediation when compared to their peers who've completed pre-K. But the Cambridge school committee is drawing up its fiscal year 2015 budget now, so the decision to add more 4-year-old slots for the next school year will need to be made quickly.
If Cambridge believes it can only offer pre-K to a limited number of children, city regulations should be changed to prioritize lower-income students who can't afford private options, something currently impossible as the district tries to maintain schools' socioeconomic balance. But Cambridge, with its high tax base but economically diverse student body, has a chance to push farther forward and be a leader in public education in Massachusetts. If the results are as positive as have been achieved elsewhere, it could serve as a model for universal pre-K in neighboring communities, including Boston. The move would also allow Cambridge to mature from a leader in spending on education to a leader in educational outcomes.