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Last week at the State House, proposed legislation that would expand and improve early education and care received ringing endorsements from a diverse chorus of supporters during a hearing held by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education.

A standing-room-only audience filled Hearing Room B-1 for more than four hours to support a range of early education bills. Parents and early educators as well as policymakers and advocates explained how high-quality programs taught by well compensated teachers would benefit both children and the state at large.

Secretary of Education Jim Peyser testified first, setting the political scene.

“The overarching education objectives of the Baker-Polito administration are to close the achievement gap and strengthen the global competitiveness of Massachusetts’ workforce and economy,” Peyser said.

“In the context of a single gubernatorial term of office, or even two, there is a temptation to focus narrowly on those parts of the public education system where the weaknesses are most pronounced and the ‘return on investment’ is easiest to measure. This short-term bias often inclines policymakers towards a disproportionate interest in reform and improvement within the K-12 system and higher education.

“But, as those of you on this committee know well, most educational deficits and obstacles begin before a child even enters Kindergarten and, unfortunately, the odds of overcoming them in time to make a real difference in a child’s academic career are frequently long. In pursuing our shared goals, we cannot afford to treat early education as an after-thought.”

Peyser was joined by Tom Weber, commissioner of the Department of Early Education and Care, who explained his department’s 10-year history and added:

“I commend you for approaching these proposed measures with the careful consideration and respect that our young learners and families deserve. Democracy does not endow the child with a vote and parents of young children are very often overwhelmed with the challenging responsibilities of providing and supporting their early needs, which is not easy even under the most ideal of conditions. Perhaps the chief wisdom of placing public education in our State Constitution is the recognition that the interests of our children and our future need special recognition.”

Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Boston) took off her chair’s hat (she co-chairs the Joint Committee on Education with Representative Peisch) and testified before her colleagues, saying:

“I will say unabashedly as a chair that it is my firm belief that early education is the single most critical issue facing this committee this session.”

Representative Marjorie Decker (D-Cambridge) asked her legislative colleagues: “What if we just in fact passed legislation that required us to ensure every 3- and 4-year-old in Massachusetts in fact was our responsibility, was the Department of Early Ed’s responsibility and that we had to provide them a high quality, accessible early childhood education program…?”

Pre-K for MA 

Chris Martes, president and CEO of Strategies for Children, and Jason Williams, the executive director of Stand for Children Massachusetts, testified on behalf of a bill — “An Act Ensuring High Quality Pre-Kindergarten Education,” — that’s supported by the Pre-K for MA coalition.

The bill was filed by Representative Alice Peisch (D-Wellesley) and Senator Sal DiDomenico (D-Everett). And it calls on Massachusetts to follow New Jersey’s approach and offer high-quality pre-K programs to 3- and 4-year-olds who live in underperforming school districts.

“To close the achievement gap K/12 must collaborate with the birth-through-age-5 sector and make early learning a priority,” Martes said, adding that this work has already been started in Boston, Holyoke, New Bedford, Pittsfield, Springfield, and other places. “These communities could accomplish much, much more with additional resources.”

Soraya Harley, a member of Stand for Children, cares for her grandchildren and said she wants them to start out “academically strong.” Because both children have benefitted from Boston pre-K programs, Harley said with conviction: “Early education is not a luxury. It is a necessity. Especially for children like my grandchildren.”

Elsa Flores, a member of Stand for Children Massachusetts, read the testimony of her friend Sandra Gomez who was unable to attend the hearing. Gomez described her two daughters. Her younger daughter attended a preschool program. Her older daughter ended up on the waiting list.

“I can’t express how difficult it was for me as a mother to watch Annie struggle… since she was not able to attend an early education program, she did not speak English.” Annie did not know what was expected of her. “Every day was a struggle to get Annie to go back to school.”

“…I know that it’s a hard decision when we have to figure out how we’re going to support all of these programs when we know that resources can be limited,” Williams, Stand for Children’s executive director, testified. However, he added, “Public support for this issue is at an all-time high,” mentioning a poll that Stand for Children commissioned on behalf of the Pre-K for MA coalition. Two-thirds of respondents supported the expansion of pre-K.

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera discussed the importance of the bill for his community, saying: “When you come into the American landscape as an immigrant, you’re not even ready for what the structure looks like for kindergarten. Parents and kids are really struggling to get ready to learn. And this [bill] will really help kids learn.”

Rahn Dorsey, Boston’s chief of education, noted that Mayor Marty Walsh is committed to providing high-quality prekindergarten education to every 4-year-old by the year 2020. However the city cannot achieve this goal without “significant and stable state support,” Dorsey said. Boston has a strong pre-K foundation. “What we need now is sustained investment to bring what we know works to scale.”

Fall River School Superintendent Meg Mayo-Brown said:

“If we are to accelerate learning, so that all students are reading at grade level by the end of third grade, then we must view learning as a birth to 8 continuum. We cannot wait until students enter kindergarten to address learning and opportunity gaps that begin at birth. High-quality pre-kindergarten is an essential component of the birth to 8 continuum, contributing to students’ school readiness, language and literacy development, and social-emotional learning.”

Nicole Blais, the director of community engagement at Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start, Inc., said, “The gap between community need and the number of children programs can serve is wider than ever before; no one entity can do this work alone. This legislation continues to build upon the existing mixed delivery system and creates seamless transitions for children and their families from high quality pre-k programs into kindergarten.”

Discussing the early learning work being done in Springfield, Sally Fuller, project director of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, said, “We want to level the playing field, first at kindergarten entry for all of our youngest children.”

“We’re excited,” Fuller added, explaining that the federal Preschool Expansion Grant that Springfield received will enable the city to enroll 195 additional 4-year-olds in high-quality programs that will be housed in a new building that the City of Springfield bought for the Springfield Public Schools. The program is called SCOOP, for the Springfield Cooperative Preschool program.

Historical Context: Massachusetts Can Lead Again

Testifying in the fourth hour of the hearing but still full of fresh energy, longtime education advocate Hubie Jones recalled how in 1972 he worked to pass a special education bill in Massachusetts.

“Today, 43 years later, I return to urge the Legislature to take similar bold action to assure that all children in our state have access to high quality pre-kindergarten education,” Jones said. He is dean emeritus at the Boston University School of Social Work and founder of the nonprofit organization Higher Ground, Inc.

Jones lamented the fact that too many children in kindergarten do not know the alphabet, numbers, or the names of colors, and that they have not been “substantially read to by adults.” If schools don’t make up for these deficiencies by third grade, children can end up on “an educational path to failure.” And too many desperate parents, Jones added, settle for inadequate, substandard preschool programs.

“Finally, let me say I’ve heard the question: How are we going to pay for it? We’re going to pay for it with money! We’re going to pay for it with state dollars.” Jones said, drawing laughter from the crowd. “It has been my experience over 50 years of advocacy that when legislative leaders lead — when they behave in the right way — the public comes along because the public wants to do the right thing. The public wants its kids to be served well. This is our responsibility. This is Massachusetts’ moment here, folks.”

Promising Momentum

“The hearing has created tremendous momentum for ‘An Act Ensuring High Quality Pre-Kindergarten Education’ and the other bills that have been filed to build a stronger pre-K system in Massachusetts,” according to Amy O’Leary, director of our Early Education for All Campaign. “This widespread support for children is unprecedented, and it promises to make Massachusetts a national and global leader in providing high-quality early education and care.”

Our thanks to everyone who testified in support of An Act Ensuring High-Quality Pre-Kindergarten Education:

Slide show photos: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children