MAYOR MARTIN J. WALSH’S long-awaited plan to provide universal, high-quality preschool in Boston is a test of one of his basic campaign promises. When Walsh was running for mayor in 2013, the former Dorchester state representative pledged to use his deep political connections on Beacon Hill to help the low-income black and brown families whose votes helped push him over the top. The universal preschool plan, which would require the state’s cooperation, offers just the sort of assistance those families want and will require just the sort of political muscle Walsh said he could flex. His success — or failure — will be a good indication of whether the minority communities’ bargain with Walsh is working.
Expanding high-quality preschool is just one way to bridge the gap between rich and poor. But it’s a vital one. Walsh has added 422 seats across Boston during his tenure. But this past school year, the city had to turn away 700 applicants because there were not enough seats in what has become one of the most successful programs in the country. Intensive teacher coaching and a strong curriculum have produced sizable gains in math and vocabulary — the biggest, a Harvard University study from 2013 showed, of any rigorously studied public program in the country.
Those kinds of gains can fade with time. But Boston officials are confident their program has staying power. In the coming months, results from a new round of research should demonstrate whether that confidence is warranted.
In the meantime, Boston is engaged in a broad reform of the lower elementary grades, designed in part to preserve the growth realized in preschool classrooms.
This is a worthy effort. And now the onus is on Walsh to expand it.
The mayor has proposed channeling surplus funds from surcharges on Boston sightseeing tours and car rentals into more quality preschool. The trouble is, those funds are held by the state, and are often tapped to balance the state budget. Walsh has a good argument to make on Beacon Hill for prying the money loose — that the surcharges are generated in Boston alone, and should be directed to an important Boston initiative. But lawmakers outside Boston have long resented the attention and resources lavished on the capital city. And insiders say the mayor will face resistance.
If Walsh is to fulfill his promise as a talented, old-school politician with a new, progressive mission, though, he must work to overcome that resistance. He was a state representative for 17 years and still has friends on Beacon Hill. He needs to work those relationships. He needs to make the case.
Walsh’s preschool proposal is a smart and admirable one. And it’s politically savvy; pushing the issue may help the mayor get through his reelection bid this year.
But that’s not enough. His push to secure funding for preschool must succeed, too. Hundreds of families are depending on it.