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Universal Pre-K in Massachusetts: Let’s start the conversation

‘Universal pre-K” is a buzzword these days in some political circles, with good reason: It’s a government investment that stands to pay big dividends in the future. Research shows that children who lack the foundation for early literacy and math are more likely to struggle academically, require special education, drop out of school, and face a host of social problems. And while a lack of early learning skills is hardly the sole obstacle for low-income kids, helping them succeed in school, as quickly as they can, is one way to address the persistent achievement gap.

That doesn’t mean that early education would be easy to deliver, or cheap. Last month, Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz of Jamaica Plain introduced a bill that would include 3- and 4-year-olds in the state’s Chapter 70 funding, the mechanism that sends state aid to local public schools. (Some children would attend public schools, while private preschools would handle some of the care.) In essence, the bill — which by this week had garnered 42 cosponsors — would make early education a state obligation, rather than a privilege for those who can afford it.

Can the state afford it? At this point, no. One report estimates that the bill would cost the state between $860 million and $1.48 billion each year, though supporters contend that that money would more than pay for itself through lower spending on special ed and social services. Still, those are hard numbers to fathom in the face of a $768 million state budget deficit, at a time when many districts are struggling even to fund full-day kindergarten. At this stage, the bill serves as more of a conversation-starter than a realistic short-term proposal. But it’s a conversation worth having.

The bill’s broad outlines leave many open questions, from the quality of programs to the thorny issue of teacher payment to the broader question of priorities: When fully implemented, the bill would help to finance preschool even in well-off suburbs (though in Massachusetts, even relatively affluent families often struggle with the high cost of child care). Some, including Governor Charlie Baker, have questioned the long-term benefits of early education, if students then move on to underperforming schools. Others ask whether a state program would duplicate a host of federal programs targeted to low-income preschoolers.


But those programs aren’t universally accessible; during the gubernatorial campaign, the candidates focused on thousands of kids, most in the Gateway Cities, who currently languish on a waiting list for highly subsidized care. Even in tight budgetary times, those wait-listed children should be a state priority. Chang-Diaz’s bill creates an impetus for discussing their future, and the prospects of other preschoolers who might stand a better chance of success with more exposure to books, language, numbers, and social and emotional skills. At this point, 43 percent of Massachusetts third graders aren’t reading on state level. That’s an unacceptable figure that bodes poorly for the future. State officials should drill into the data, and start talking.