Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

A new report, “Building a Foundation for Success,” looks at the unmet preschool needs of children in the commonwealth — and proposes three ways that Massachusetts might expand its preschool programs to create more access.

Released by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (MassBudget), a nonprofit research organization, the report examines the number of preschool-age children in Massachusetts and the public funding streams that support their enrollment. The report costs out “a range of options for expanding and improving early education and care for these 3- and 4-year-olds in Massachusetts.” The options proposed range in cost from $153 million to $606 million in increased annual state funding on top of what is currently being spent. This increased state funding would be bolstered by non-state sources such as sliding scale parent fees or local education funding, depending on the model used.

“Right now we have a very fragmented system and that leaves many kids without access to any early education at all,” Noah Berger, MassBudget’s president, told the Boston Globe. However, Berger added that there was a growing consensus that a wide expansion of early education options was good for children and for the economy.

Carolyn Lyons, Strategies for Children president and CEO, is encouraged by the report. “This new report by MassBudget builds upon ongoing state and local policy conversations across the commonwealth on how to pay for and structure high-quality universal pre-k. Research shows that high-quality early education has

important short- and long-term impacts on young children’s educational, social and health outcomes. If Massachusetts is to remain ‘the education state’ and start to close achievement gaps, we must invest significant new resources in early education.”

Lyons adds, “The current system is built largely upon federal child care subsidies tied to parental work status, long waiting lists for such subsidies, high parent fees for those who do not qualify for aid, and low salaries for early educators. That combination is simply not sustainable – Massachusetts children, families and taxpayers deserve better.”

 Defining the Need: How Many Massachusetts Children Are in Preschool?

Based on an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, MassBudget estimates that there were roughly 158,000 3- and 4-year-olds living in Massachusetts in 2012.

Drawing on data from public agencies that support early education and care — including the federally funded Head Start program; the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education ; and the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC), — MassBudget estimates that:

 • one-third of 3- and 4-year-olds statewide, roughly 52,000 children, receive public support to help fund their early education and care

• the remaining two-thirds, some 105,500, are either not in formal settings or are paying full price

 • most middle and upper income families who are in the remaining two-thirds are paying full price

 “For kids below 200 percent of poverty,” the report says, “roughly one-third receive no public support to help fund their early education and care.” These families would probably benefit the most from expanded early education and care programs — especially those low-income parents who are struggling to pay full private rates to enroll their children in preschool programs.

Options for Expansion

Rather than prescribing one path for expansion and improvement, MassBudget presents three options that should generate a worthwhile public debate:

 Option 1 – expand through the system of private providers using EEC’s current subsidy system and sliding family fee scale

Option 2 – expand through public schools using the state’s Chapter 70 education funding formula, or

Option 3 – expand through a hybrid public/private system

 Costs and Outcomes

To estimate the cost of option 1, expanding through private providers (nonprofit and for-profit center-based early education programs), MassBudget used a sliding family fee scale and came up with two models.

Option 1a: Provide affordable early education and care for all lower-income children through private providers, at current EEC subsidy rates or with quality improvements.

 Cost: $440 million = $153 million in state funds + $288 million paid by families.

 Outcome: state subsidies for 52,000 children in the “families at or below 400 percent of federal poverty” who do not currently receive public support (such as Head Start, EEC subsidy, public school pre-k) for their early education and care. Importantly, this model de-couples eligibility from parental work status (current federal/EEC requirement), relying solely on family income.

 It is important to note that this option would do little to address program quality. As the report points out, current rates (roughly $8,500 per preschool-age child per year) are not enough to sustain program budgets or pay and retain highly qualified teachers; therefore most programs raise supplemental funds to balance their budgets, and admit private paying students if possible. The report acknowledges the cost of delivering higher quality pre-k in its next two cost models.

Option 1b: A second way to expand access for lower-income children is to tie state reimbursement rates to the quality improvements that preschool providers make. Both models below would serve the same 52,000 children, 3- and 4-year olds currently receiving no public support for early education.

Cost: $578 million = $290 million state funds + $288 million paid by families

State reimbursement rate increased to $10,600, a level equivalent to what 50 percent of private providers charge their unsubsidized children

 Or at a higher reimbursement rate:

 Cost: $727 million = $439 million in state funds + $288 million paid by families

 State reimbursement rate increased to $12,900, a level equivalent to what 75 percent of private providers charge, and roughly equivalent to the per-pupil allocation for New Jersey’s high-quality pre-k program.

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 The second option proposed in the report is an expansion of preschool through public schools. MassBudget’s report says, “This route would more closely integrate the education and care of 3- and 4-year-olds with the educational system designed to support them during their K-12 years.” Public school preschool would likely adhere to local school district requirements for teacher salaries and credentials. However, unlike community-based programs, public school pre-k typically defines “full-day” as only 6 hours, and does not run during school vacation or summer months.

Option 2: universal early education and care provided through public schools

Cost: $1.48 billion/year = $606 million in state funds + $872 million in local funds — based on a per pupil budget of $13,999

Outcome: universal full-day pre-kindergarten for 105,500 children currently receiving no public funding support for early education.

 Or at a lower per-pupil rate:

Cost: $860 million per year — based on a per pupil budget of $8,151

Outcome: universal, full-day pre-kindergarten for 105,500 children

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 Option 3: “expanded early education and care through a public/private hybrid system.”

Rather than making a cost estimate about expanding hybrid systems, MassBudget points to two promising examples in Boston and New Jersey and highlights features of each program that could be duplicated.

“The Boston Public Schools (BPS) Boston K1DS program has taken a different hybrid approach,” the report says, “distributing school district funding out to private providers in order to support their quality improvement efforts.”

“BPS has undertaken this initiative in order to better connect the academic instruction of 3- and 4-year-olds with the instruction they will receive in the early grades as BPS students.”

Requirements and features of Boston’s program include:

 – programs must be EEC certified and accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)

 – teachers must meet certain education qualifications

 – each classroom receives $45,000, currently funded through private sources, to support salary increases and administrative expenses

 – classrooms receive administrative support in adopting the Boston K1 literacy and math curricula

 – coaches are available for classroom visits to help the teachers and directors with implementation of new programming

 – program directors receive support in delivering professional development for their teachers.

 In New Jersey, the Abbott preschool program is the result of a 1980s court order that mandated fully-funded early education for 3- and 4-year-olds in 31 cities and towns.

“State funding under this model first flows to Abbott school districts, with districts then having the option to either use this revenue to operate pre-kindergarten themselves, or, alternatively, to contract with qualifying Head Start programs or private providers,” the report explains. Spending in public and private settings is “set at the same level—roughly $12,800 per pupil in FY 2012.”

Features of New Jersey’s program include:

 – 100 percent state funding for the Abbott preschool programs

 – free full-school-day preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds

 – all teachers must have a bachelor’s degree and must be licensed to teach early education

 – classes may not exceed 15 students and must include teachers’ assistants

Other Options

MassBudget also considers the narrower option of only expanding preschool for 4-year-olds, using Oklahoma as an example. Features of this program include:

 – equal pay for pre-K teachers and K-12 teachers

– teachers are required to have a college degree and a certificate in early education

 – districts can partner with tribal programs, private centers, faith-based settings, and Head Start centers; these classrooms are part of the public school system and are staffed by public school teachers

– pre-K is voluntary

 – all districts are required to offer the option of full-day kindergarten.

 The Future of Expansion

“Needless to say, the state will face many pressing design and implementation challenges in pursuing any of these options,” the MassBudget report concludes. “But the evidence is clear: by expanding and improving our current system of early education and care, we can help build a foundation for success, both for children directly and for the state economy as a whole.”

Now Massachusetts has to create its own map for preschool expansion and improvement.