Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

Massachusetts must invest more in pre-kindergarten to maintain its reputation as a national leader in education, according to a recent op-ed column in The Boston Globe.

For many years, Massachusetts has enjoyed the unofficial title as the Education State. It is the mecca of American higher education with over 50 universities and colleges in the Boston area alone. Bay State K-12 students rank first in national reading and mathematics test scores. High school graduation rates may not be best in the country but with four in five freshmen receiving diplomas within four years, it is toward the head of the class and well above the national average,” Jim Squires, a senior research fellow at the National Institute for Early Education Research, writes in “Massachusetts is the education state, for now.”

“The rankings, however, do not tell the whole story. Although Massachusetts ranks first on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, half of the commonwealth’s fourth graders scored below proficient in reading. Massachusetts also has a large achievement gap. One key to a happy ending is to support preschoolers and early education. Yet according to a landmark national study released recently by the National Institute for Early Education Research, Massachusetts continues to struggle in maintaining its commitment to state funding for high-quality pre-kindergarten. In the long run, this could threaten Massachusetts’s status as the Education State and its accompanying benefits as the achievement gap becomes insurmountable and costly.”

NIEER’s 2011 report on the state of preschool funding across the country, Squires writes, ranks Massachusetts 23rd in pre-kindergarten funding, down from 8th a decade ago. In addition, he writes, funding for the Universal Pre-Kindergarten grant program, “which is designed to support and enhance quality,” stands at $7.5 million, down from $12.14 million in fiscal year 2009. The Department of Early Education and Care, which was funded at $570.6 million in FY09, is currently funded at $495.16 million. And Head Start, Squires writes, gets $7.5 million from the state, compared with $10 million in FY09. “These results are surprising for a state priding itself on its education system,” Squires writes.

Squires commends Massachusetts for being one of nine states awarded a federal Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grant, but cautions that these funds last only four years and are not designed to supplant state investments.

“To build on the momentum created by the Early Learning Challenge, Massachusetts must increase investments in high-quality early education,” Squires writes. “Science and economics both confirm the benefits of investing in quality early education. An overwhelming body of research shows that high-quality pre-K prepares children to succeed in school, enroll in college or career training, and ultimately get better jobs in the increasingly competitive global economy.

“For Massachusetts to retain its perceived advantage as the nation’s Education State with its ensuing benefits, policymakers need to change course and make prudent new investments in early education now.”