Photo: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children

“I’d like to welcome our commissioner who has come… We are thrilled to see so many of our Wheelock alums… Mayor Clare Higgins is back by popular demand!” said Wheelock College President Jackie Jenkins-Scott as she welcomed all the participants who came to her school for the “Ninth Annual Community Dialogue on Early Education and Care: Our Children’s Future — Time for a New Plan.”

Higgins, the former mayor of Northampton, attended last year’s dialogue; and this year she was joined by advocates, educators, and policy analysts who spoke to an audience of 200 about how best to bring high-quality early education and care to more of Massachusetts’ children.

The goal for the day was reinforced throughout the three-hour event: Unite; develop an agenda; and tell a compelling story that will inspire policymakers — especially the next governor of Massachusetts — to commit to a grand plan for improving the commonwealth’s early education and care system.

Community Dialogue Speakers

The state’s challenge is that it has made “incremental progress” and “not the seismic shift that’s necessary.” Tom Weber, the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care told the audience.

He pointed to progress on language and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) standards, as well as advances in quality and kindergarten entry assessments.

“I measure our success by the budget,” and early education lags behind K-12, Weber said.

“I think what we suffer from is an A-E-I-O-U problem.”

A is for a field that is largely apolitical: Early education serves children who can’t vote and parents who are mostly only interested when their children are young.

E is for expensive: Or seemingly so. Early educators know that their work pays off in the long run by decreasing costly problems such as grade retention and high drop out rates. But the upfront costs of funding universal preschool frighten people off.

I is for inaccessible: Too many families can’t afford to pay for high-quality preschool programs.

O is for overwhelming: The state’s early education system has multiple providers and varied funding sources.

And U is for under-documented: Some of the best studies on preschool programs are decades old. The field needs more fresh research.

Weber called for tighter, more visible messaging, saying, “I’d love for the U.S. to be a leader in early education.”

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“Early education and care is important for children, parents, and our economy,” Jeff Bernstein, senior policy analyst at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (MassBudget), explained in his presentation.

Bernstein shared the results of a MassBudget report called “Building a Foundation for Success” that explores “the current landscape of early education and care in Massachusetts, looking at where kids are served and identifying groups of children receiving no formal care at all.”

MassBudget estimates that there are 158,000 3- and 4-year-olds in Massachusetts. Some 51,000 of these children are members of families whose earnings are below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. And 20,000 of these children don’t get any public help paying for preschool programs.

What can Massachusetts do to help these kids? Expand high-quality preschool programs.

The MassBudget report looks at three different ways that this could be accomplished, and calculates the state and local funding that would be necessary for each approach:

• affordable early education and care for all lower income kids through private providers, at current rates or with quality improvements

• universal early education and care through public schools, or

• expanded early education and care through a public/private hybrid system

As we explained here, “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.”

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“Now we’ve got to take this energy and drive it into the State House and the gubernatorial race,” Marie St. Fleur said. A former state representative from Dorchester, St. Fleur is now the president and CEO of the Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children.

“We don’t have to be disrespectful,” St. Fleur said calling on the audience to be fierce advocates, but, “We don’t have to be so polite.”

She argued that companies such as Target, whose workers rely on early education and care programs, should be allies. She also encouraged the crowd to be honest in talking about how expensive it is to care for infants and toddlers.

“They’re not doing you a favor,” St. Fleur said of salary increases. These increases help keep early educators in the field and that stability is essential for children. Higher salaries also help stabilize the lives of early educators’ own children.

Her warning: The early education field has to come together. School-based preschool programs, family providers, and center-based programs cannot fight amongst themselves. They have to find and agree on a common issue, develop an agenda, and advocate for it.

That agenda should be part of the next governor’s platform, St. Fleur said. Otherwise multiple messages will emerge and cancel each other out.

“Do what you tell your children to do,” St. Fleur urged. “Come together.”

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“Children depend on dependable people being in their lives,” Mary Clare Higgins said, noting how important it is to pay wages that enable early education and care professionals to remain in their jobs. This is especially true for educators and providers who are working with children who have the greatest needs.

Higgins is the executive director of the anti-poverty agency Community Action.

It is unconscionable, Higgins said, to increase access to early education without increasing salaries and stabilizing the workforce. Children need that stability. The field understands “that nurturing is in our job description.”

Praising Governor Patrick’s plan for early education, Higgins noted that his plan lacked a supportive coalition in the Legislature and in the community.

Moving forward: “We need a plan to organize around so that we’re not organizing against each other.”

Just as Massachusetts made a commitment to reforming K-12 education, the state could develop a vision and a plan to transform early education.

Higgins asked how many people in the audience knew the names of their state senators and representatives, as well as their mayors and school committee chairs.

And how many of you talk to them? Higgins asked, noting that these are the people who make key education decisions. Communication is essential, Higgins said, because just as children grow and change through human interaction, so do state senators and representatives.

High-quality early education programs aren’t only about preparing the next generation of workers, Higgins said. These programs also give children the fundamentals they need to prosper in a democratic society.

“Change is possible,” Higgins said. “Dramatic change is possible.”

Part Two of this blog will run on Monday, June 12, 2014.