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Published in Print: January 24, 2007, as Mass. Preschool Boosters Hope to Ride National Wave

Mass. Preschool Boosters Hope to Ride National Wave

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With a new governor in office—one more eager than his predecessor to establish a universal-preschool program—early-childhood-education advocates in Massachusetts are optimistic that their state will be part of a wave of states poised to make preschool a top priority this legislative year.

Last August, then-Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, vetoed legislation that would have instituted what advocates described as a dramatic expansion of the state’s existing early-childhood program, warning that it would lay “the groundwork for future tax increases.”

But Gov. Deval L. Patrick, a Democrat who took office Jan. 5, has made public preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, as well as full-day kindergarten, central elements of his education platform.

Meanwhile, sponsors of the legislation vetoed by Mr. Romney will file it again in this year’s session, in the hope of reaching some of the 6,000 preschoolers now on a state waiting list for child-care subsidies, according to Margaret Blood, the president of Strategies for Children, based in Boston. That nonprofit organization has led a campaign called Early Education for All since 2000.

Preschool proponents in Massachusetts are excited about the prospect of a state government led by “key people who understand that education begins before” the K-12 system, Ms. Blood said.

And Massachusetts is just one of several states where policymakers have put early education high on the agenda.

“I think it will be another banner year for pre-K,” said Libby Doggett, the executive director of Pre-K Now, a Washington-based advocacy group that tracks annual state spending on preschool programs.

Other states that could also move during this year’s legislative sessions to build on their existing systems of early-childhood education, Ms. Doggett said, include Arkansas, Connecticut, and New York. In Arkansas, Gov. Mike Beebe, a newly inaugurated Democrat, wants to add $40 million more to the Arkansas Better Chance preschool program, bringing total funding to more than $100 million.

And in Oregon, Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski is proposing to add 3,000 slots to the state’s Head Start-like preschool program for disadvantaged children through an increase in a corporate tax. The increase would bring in an extra $39 million a year. The program, which has a budget of about $26 million, currently serves about 3,500 children.

Universal or Targeted?

A national debate continues, however, over whether public preschool programs should be reserved for the neediest children or be open to everyone, regardless of family income.

Such is the issue playing out in Virginia, where Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine is pushing to offer access to all 100,000 of the state’s 4-year-olds, while some Republican lawmakers are cautioning against spending state money on a service that many families pay for themselves.

During his State of the State address on Jan. 10, Gov. Kaine urged lawmakers to “act on our knowledge that investing in early-childhood education delivers significant savings for our entire society down the road.”

More than 11,000 children from low-income families already are served by the Virginia Preschool Initiative. Last month, the state’s Start Strong Council, a 25-member commission appointed by the governor, recommended the launch of a pilot universal preschool program in six communities this fall.

The pilot program, which would reach about 1,000 children who are not now attending public preschool, could be used to test a variety of new initiatives, including a teacher-mentoring program and a quality-rating system for providers, the council said in its report.

Ms. Doggett said that even though Virginia is likely to move to a universal program only on an incremental basis, governors such as Mr. Kaine increasingly favor universal access over a mix of targeted programs with varying eligibility criteria.

“Then you’re not bean-counting, and you’re building a quality program for all children,” she said.

In Massachusetts, the vetoed legislation to be filed again this session calls for an ambitious proposal that would cost roughly $100 million in additional state funds, up from about $68 million currently, Ms. Blood said.

In the existing Community Partnerships for Children program, low-income families of 3 and 4 year olds receive “scholarship” funds and are served by variety of providers. The new proposal would build on that program, and offer it first to preschoolers not currently receiving any public subsidies.

As in most states, the plan envisions a program that uses existing public and private providers, including schools, Head Start centers, and private preschools. But unlike in states such as Florida, Georgia, and Oklahoma, policymakers in Massachusetts don’t intend to immediately open the doors to all preschoolers regardless of their parents’ income levels.

Experts’ Advice

Ms. Blood said she agrees that research is still mixed on the benefits of public preschools for middle-class children, but added that experts recommend it’s best to “get as much as you can for poor kids.”

Budget projections also show that to make the Massachusetts program available to all preschoolers could take an additional $500 million—something that Ms. Blood hopes will happen over the next five years. Even then, she added, parents would pay a portion of the cost on a sliding scale, although no cost-range estimates are available at this point.

Steffanie Clothier, a program director at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, suggested that sliding fee scales, such as those being considered in Massachusetts, might be one way to resolve the dispute over whether programs should be open to all prekindergartners or just those from poor families.

“From a political standpoint, that might be more palatable,” she said of the sliding-fee option.

Another example that should be considered, Ms. Clothier added, is New Jersey’s court-ordered preschool program, established as part of the Abbott v. Burke school finance case. That program is open to families of any income level, but only within 31 specific low-income communities.

A legislative committee in New Jersey has recommended an expansion of the Abbott preschool program to roughly 70 additional urban and rural communities. The fate of those recommendations now rests with the state legislature.

“A geographic approach can make a lot of sense,” Ms. Clothier said.

One governor who so far is not recommending additional preschool funding for fiscal 2008 is Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, a Republican, even though last year he pledged $145 million over a three-year period for an expansion of the state’s preschool program for disadvantaged children. ("Gov. Schwarzenegger Signs Legislation Expanding Pre-K," Sept. 13, 2006.)

Preschool advocates in the state say they hope that before this year’s California budget process is over, the money will be included in the final version of the spending plan.

PHOTO: Three-year-old Nathan Austin, center, dances around teacher Jennifer Grillo-Bates at an early-learning center in Elizabeth, N.J. The state is among those that may expand preschool programs.
—File photo by Mike Derer/AP

Vol. 26, Issue 20, Pages 26,31

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