“It’s like getting the band back together,” Pat Haddad (D-Somerset), Speaker Pro Tempore of the House, said of herself and some her colleagues who gathered at the State House on Tuesday for “Looking Back to Look Forward,” a Strategies for Children celebration of the tenth anniversary of An Act Relative to Early Education and Care, which became law in 2008.
Sponsored by Haddad and Senator Robert Antonioni (D-Leominster) and signed into law by Governor Deval Patrick, the new legislation was a bright step forward. It officially established Massachusetts’ Universal Pre-K (UPK) program, and outlined the responsibilities of the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) and for its board and commissioner.
“We had to block out some of the people who were naysayers,” Haddad said at the Looking Back event. But now, she explained, more and more legislators understand that building a universal pre-K program is “the right thing to do.”
The Legislature has never been able to fully fund UPK, but it has made progress, investing in scholarships for early educators and leveraging the power of federal preschool grant funds.
To mark the law’s anniversary and reflect on its future, Strategies for Children’s Amy O’Leary moderated a lineup of speakers including Haddad, other legislators, state officials, and local early education program directors to speak at Looking Back to Look Forward. Many of the speakers remarked that though they have had different roles over the last 10 years their commitment to the issue remains strong. Here’s an overview of what they had to say.
For House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop), working on early education has been a team effort. DeLeo recognized the work of former State Representative Alice Wolf (D-Cambridge) who attended the Looking Back event, and he cited Representative Alice Peisch (D-Wellesley) as being one of his early education mentors. Arguing that the early education workforce is in “crisis,” DeLeo himself has worked to increase early educators’ salaries. And he has formed an early education and care advisory group of business leaders to help address workforce issues. In closing, DeLeo recognized advocates and educators, saying, “Thank you for being there in the trenches.”
Leo Delaney recalled the concern that the law would focus on public schools, leaving centers and family providers out in the cold. Back then, Delaney was the executive director of Boston’s Ellis Memorial pre-K program. Instead, UPK funding enabled Delaney and other leaders to invest in teachers.
“The progress that we saw happening over the next ten years was really amazing.” Members of the field were recognized as educators. More programs sought national accreditation. And early education leaders learned that they had to work together to promote legislative progress. The ultimate result was better outcomes for children.
Among the remaining challenges, Delaney said, is attracting teachers into the field and finding a better way to fund the early education system.
“We have to work with our kids at an earlier age,” Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy Cruz said. Addressing challenges like the opioid crisis and helping children who witness and experience violence can protect children and steer them away from criminal activity. “We save money by being on the front end of things,” Cruz said, adding that by working to protect children from what social science calls ACES — adverse childhood experiences — he hopes to put himself out of the business of prosecuting criminals.
One of the first questions that Ann Reale asked in 2005 when she became the first commissioner of the Department of Early Education and Care was: How can people work together differently to improve the lives of children? It was early educator and activist Gwen Morgan who told Reale to address the “trilemma” of access, affordability and quality.
“Where do we focus our energy now?” Reale asked. One answer is putting more people in the right room at the right times by ensuring that all the relevant state agencies are talking to each other, including the departments of Elementary and Secondary Education, Higher Education, Public Health, Transitional Assistance, and Housing and Community Development as well as the state Judiciary. “There is no end to the number of people who could help.”
Tom Weber, the current early education commissioner, emphasized, “How important it is that there be relentless and focused advocacy on behalf of early education,” because, in part, children ages zero to five don’t vote, and parents move through this stage of their children’s lives quickly. This advocacy could yield an increased investment in early education that would give children greater access to high-quality programs. Weber also said that his department had spread itself and the field too thin, trying to take on everything. Now the focus is on the workforce. As advocacy moves forward, Weber suggested, it should “keep the workforce as the North Star and focus on the central value of teaching and learning.”
Having worked in three state agencies — at DEEC as acting commissioner and at the departments of Children and Families and Transitional Assistance — Amy Kershaw brings a kaleidoscopic view to early education. She spoke about building the “presence of something good in a child’s life,” protective factors such as programs and relationships. By providing this protection for children, early education programs help parents — including those who receive transitional assistance — go back to work. And this creates a two-generation approach to disrupting poverty that can help more of the state’s families thrive. Kershaw and Weber are both Strategies for Children alumni.
For State Senator Sal DiDomenico (D-Everett) universal pre-K is personal. DiDomenico enrolled in Head Start when he was a boy. And his hometown of Everett has invested in universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds — and this has contributed to the success of many of the city’s children. The next step, DiDomenico said, is to hound legislators. Every legislator supports early education and kids, but the big obstacle is funding. DiDomenico’s advice is to say to legislators, “What I want to know as a parent, educator, or advocate is what are you going to do to make this happen?”
Ten years ago, when UPK became state law, Representative Andy Vargas (D-Haverhill) was a teenager. These days, he’s talking about generating new revenue sources.
“What we’re really frankly lacking is the courage to take that leap to fully fund universal pre-K.” Courage might lead the state to consider a tax on sugary beverages like the one in Philadelphia or Massachusetts could consider taxing vaping products at the same level as cigarettes.
“I encourage you all to not lose sight of thinking big,” Vargas said. “There are many ways we can do this.”
Kretcha Roldan, the executive director of the Elizabeth Peabody House in Somerville, and a career social worker, told a story about Sheri Rios, her preschool program director. Sheri started teaching at EPH when she was 18, and has since used the state’s early educator scholarship program to earn her associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. Looking forward, Roldan called for addressing several problems. One problem is parents who are caught in a policy bind. They earn too much to be eligible for a child care subsidy; but they don’t earn enough to pay the private rate for child care. This squeeze, sometimes called the“cliff effect,” is pushing her families to quit jobs, turn down promotions, or reduce their child’s enrollment. “What do we do with these working families who have no options right now?”
Justin Pasquariello, the executive director of the East Boston Social Centers, which serves 150 children in four preschool sites, said, “We couldn’t do this work without strong investments.” Public investments help pay for transportation, nutritious food, and wrap-around services.
A high-quality early education system can prepare our children for an uncertain future,” Pasquariello added, for jobs that have yet to be defined and names. But to provide children with this kind of future, Massachusetts has to preserve its advances in early education. To do this, the state needs “a dedicated stream of funding.”
What Alice Peisch remembers about the early days of early education is legislators asking, “Do we really want to provide babysitting? That’s not our job.” These misconceptions — about early education being babysitting and about the Legislature’s role in children’s lives — are long gone. “We now realize that good, strong, high-quality early education is a condition for success in K-12.”
One thing, that hasn’t changed much, Peisch said, is figuring out where the funding for this work can come from.
“I am hopeful that ten years from now, we are no longer talking about having to choose between quality and access,” Peisch said.
“I want to thank you for being here,” Chris Martes, the president of CEO of Strategies for Children, said as he ended Looking Back to Look Forward.
“We’ve made impressive progress on UPK,” Martes added after the event. “We’re working on quality. We’re investing in the workforce. And we’re chipping away at affordability and access. But we have to keep working hard. We’ve still got a long way to go to build a preschool system that is truly universal.”
Additional resources from the event are posted here.