Governor Patrick at yesterday's State House event (Photo: Eric Haynes/Governor's Office)

“The more we get together, the happier we’ll be.” The familiar children’s song, performed by preschoolers from Boston’s Ellis Memorial & Eldredge House, set the tone for  yesterday’s event at the Massachusetts State House celebrating the federal Early Learning Challenge grant of $50 million over four years that the commonwealth was awarded last month.

From Governor Deval Patrick to Early Education and Care Commissioner Sherri Killins, speakers emphasized the collaboration that led to the successful application and the collaboration required not only to implement the grant but also to continue state efforts to build a system of high-quality early education and care. More than 150 legislators, state education leaders, early educators and early childhood advocates attended yesterday’s celebration, which was sponsored by Early Education for All, a campaign of Strategies for Children.

The federal grant is designed to supplement, not supplant, state spending on early education. In her opening remarks, EEA Campaign Director Amy O’Leary challenged policymakers to build on the momentum created by the Early Learning Challenge to increase state investments in early education. “The Early Learning Challenge grant and an improving economy provide an opportunity for Massachusetts to truly lead the nation,” O’Leary said. “We must invest more in all children, but particularly our youngest learners.”

Reporters later asked Patrick if he would recommend increased funding for early education in the fiscal year 2013 budget recommendation he will send to the Legislature next week. “We’re going to do the very best we can,” Patrick replied, according to State House News Service. “It’s a challenging budget as you know, and I think the advocates do as well, but the very best dollar we can spend and that any government spends, I believe, is in education, and the more we can spend in early education and care to give kids the really very best start that’s all to the good. So we’re going to do the best we can.”

Massachusetts is among nine states sharing the $500 million Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge. The Massachusetts Early Learning Plan  detailed in the state’s application includes provisions to expand the Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS), develop age-appropriate assessments of young children and support the professional development and training of the early education workforce. Other states that won awards are: California, Delaware, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington. A total of 35 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, applied for the program.

“The kids talked about togetherness.  Your friends are my friends.  And what we’re celebrating today is really a marvelous example of what we can accomplish when we work together,” Governor Patrick told the audience.

“It’s wonderful to see these young people and kids like them, getting a chance before they can even appreciate what a big impact early education will have on them.  Before we later in life have to try to deal with the kinds of achievement gaps we’re dealing with all across the commonwealth.  Long before we have to spend later — by investing time and energy and resources and imagination right now. Right now.  We do something meaningful to make a better commonwealth.  Right now,” Patrick said.

“We have some tremendous accomplishments here in the commonwealth, in education.  A very strong foundation on which to build. But we also appreciate — every one of us here — that we cannot rest on our laurels. We must do what has to be done — in our time — to assure a stronger commonwealth into the future.”

JD Chesloff, chairman of the state’s Board of Early Education and Care and executive director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, noted that the Early Learning Challenge rewarded states that have already created a strong foundation for young children. In Massachusetts, this foundation includes creation of the nation’s first consolidated Department of Early Education and Care in 2005, a QRIS focused on a mixed delivery system of public and private providers that establishes a shared definition of quality, a Universal Pre-Kindergarten grant program designed to support and sustain quality programs, and the Early Childhood Educators Scholarship for early educators working toward college degrees.

O’Leary, in her remarks, also called high-quality early education a critical building block on the road to literacy and urged enactment of legislation designed to improve third grade reading proficiency, a strong predictor of children’s chances of success in school and beyond. .

“As proud as we are of the commonwealth’s accomplishment in winning an Early Learning Challenge grant we know that we still have much work ahead. We will not fully serve the needs of all of the commonwealth’s young children until we take collective responsibility for giving them a strong start and continue to support them along the way,” O’Leary said.

“There are many parts of the solution, and we believe that legislation pending here on Beacon Hill –- An Act Relative to Third Grade Reading Proficiency — will help make this critical benchmark a shared priority across the three state education agencies and look forward to working with the governor, secretary, the commissioners and our key sponsors in the Legislature to pass this bill. By providing all children in Massachusetts with the opportunity they need to succeed in school and life we also help ensure the commonwealth’s future prosperity.”

Commissioner Killins talked about the 120,000 young children in the commonwealth who face one or more risk factors (such as poverty, low maternal education, and low birth weight). “It is our obligation to know those children and families by name so we can provide the type of supports that we know can prevent developmental delays and close the proficiency gap.” She talked about “changing the conversation” from closing the achievement gap to realizing the promise of every child. “We’ve got to have communities owning children, birth to age 8,” she said. “Our children don’t have one day to waste.”

Melinda Boone, superintendent of schools in Worcester, talked about the role of early education in her city’s efforts to improve third and fourth grade literacy. “The difference between success and failure for most children is opportunity,” Boone said.  Cindy Recoulle, assistant vice president of programs for quality assurance at Square One in Springfield, talked of the role of QRIS in improving early learning settings. “It’s given our educators a clear focus to assure best practices,” Recoulle said.

In his closing remarks, Secretary of Education Paul Reville called on advocates to continue “to make the case” for high-quality early education. “We’re trying to build a system that meets every child where he or she is,” Reville said. “To do this, we need your continued advocacy.”