Photo: Department of Early Education and Care

It’s an exciting time in early education. President Obama called for universal preschool access in his State of the Union address. Governor Patrick is seeking $131 million in new funding for early education in the fiscal year 2014 state budget.

And while Sherri Killins has stepped down from her post as commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, the dynamic work of expanding the Commonwealth’s system of high-quality early education continues as Tom Weber replaces Killins as acting commissioner.

“We have an opportunity to resource the system in a way that gets us to our goal of high-quality, easily accessible programs,” Weber said in a recent interview.

Massachusetts has 440,000 children ages birth to five. The state provides early education and care subsidies for some 30,000 of these children. However, there’s still a waiting list with 30,000 more names, and, Weber says, there’s more demand beyond the list.

Fortunately, Massachusetts has several advantages.  We have laid the foundation for universal, high-quality programs by establishing the nation’s first consolidated Department of Early Education and Care. We have enhanced quality through the Universal Pre-Kindergarten program and the Quality Rating and Improvement System.  And we have been awarded a federal Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grant.

Another strength, Weber says, is his department’s staff.  He cites their knowledge and their collaboration with providers.

And it’s providers themselves who are essential.

“I have a tremendous admiration for the work they’re doing,” Weber said, noting that providers have already improved their programs and opened their doors to more children — despite limited funding. “They dig into their hearts, and they dig into their budgets.”

A graduate of the College of the Holy Cross and Suffolk University Law School, Weber has spent 16 years working in the nonprofit sector as well as in state and federal government positions focusing on education and workforce development. From 2007 to 2009, he was the legislative director here at Strategies for Children. He has also served as an advisor to two Massachusetts education secretaries, Paul Reville and Matthew Malone.

Tom’s Favorite Children’s Book:

As with prior blog interviewees, we asked Tom to name his favorite children’s book.

When he’s reading to his own two young children, he likes “The Circus Ship,” by Chris Van Dusen.

“It’s a really clever story,” he said, about a ship full of circus animals traveling to Boston. Cruising through fog, the ship runs aground off the coast of Maine. The animals’ nemesis is the circus owner, the ominously named Mr. Paine. The book was inspired by the real-life, 1836 shipwreck of the Royal Tar, which also carried circus animals.