When it comes to preschool, Sal DiDomenico has a lot of credentials. He’s a product of Head Start, he proudly explained in a recent interview. His two sons went to preschool in Everett’s public school system. And now as a state senator (D-Everett), he’s an elected champion of early education and care.
“Some people think it’s babysitting,” DiDomenico says of early education and care programs. “I get frustrated when I hear people say that.”
Because if you’ve seen high-quality early education in action, he explains, you know how important it is. DiDomenico sees this in his personal history. He went from Head Start, to being second in his class in high school, and on to the State Legislature, where he is vice chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. He also sees how well-prepared his sons and other preschool graduates are now that they are in grade school.
What’s ironic, he says, is that when he was young, Head Start officials had to convince people to enroll. Now there isn’t enough room in Head Start and other preschool programs. Even in his hometown of Everett, DiDomenico says there’s a waiting list to access the public school preschool program.
So DiDomenico is pushing Massachusetts to increase access to preschool programs, while maintaining quality.
Along with Representative Alice Peisch (D-Wellesley), DiDomenico has filed a bill — “An Act Ensuring High Quality Pre-Kindergarten Education” — that would have Massachusetts follow in New Jersey’s footsteps by creating more “access to high-quality pre-kindergarten programs for 3-and 4-year-olds living in underperforming school districts.”
DiDomenico would like to see every child in the state have access to high-quality programs. But as he notes: “We can’t just solve it all in one year or two years.” The logical first step is to expand preschool programs in districts that need them the most.
The bill is being reviewed at the committee level. Legislators know the issue is important, DiDomenico says, and they support it. “My question has always been: At what level do you support it?”
Another piece of the policy puzzle: Supporting early educators.
So many early educators are struggling to support their own young families, DiDomenico says, even as they go to work to do what’s probably the most important job there is.
“It takes someone special to educate kids that age,” DiDomenico says, someone with training and patience. “I don’t think they get enough credit.” They also don’t earn enough, which is why in the past, DiDomenico has co-sponsored “An Act creating an earned income tax credit for early educators.”
In the short term, as the Legislature crafts the FY 2016 state budget, DiDomenico says the “commitment is there” for early education and care. And he sums up the push for preschool this way: “It should be a right, not a privilege.”
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As we often do with interviewees, we asked DiDomenico what his favorite children’s book is. Without hesitation, he said, “Hop on Pop,” by Dr. Seuss. He did not read the book as a child, but he reads it to children during Dr. Seuss week, and he knows the book so well he can improvise. And even his sons “still like their dad to read it to them at home.”