Column: The Importance of Early Childhood Education

Physician and educator Maria Montessori said, “Free the child’s potential, and you will transform him into the world.”  One of the proven ways to maximize the potential of our youth is through high quality early childhood education.  With back-to-school just around the corner, this is a good time to consider the progress we have made, and the work that still lies ahead, to improve access to early education for all children.

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranks 25th in the world in the enrollment of 4-year-olds in early learning programs.  Most other developed countries are more successful in providing access to early education for children from low- and moderate-income families.

A substantial body of research over the past several decades strongly demonstrates that high-quality, developmentally appropriate early childhood programs produce short- and long-term positive effects on children’s cognitive and social development.  And, it is estimated that expanded early learning initiatives overall would provide benefits to our society of roughly $8.60 for every $1 spent.

In Massachusetts, we face similar challenges in preparing our youngest students for success in school, college, and careers.  Approximately 43% of third graders in the Commonwealth do not read at grade level.  The third grade marker is viewed as a key indicator of future performance in school and beyond.  Expanded access to quality early education is critical to addressing this persistent achievement gap in our schools.  The Department of Early Education and Care has found that low-income children who participate in high quality early education programs are 40% less likely to be held back or require special education, 30% more likely to graduate from high school, and twice as likely to go to college.  That is an astounding difference.

Unfortunately, many families in Massachusetts cannot afford to send their children to pre-school, and financial assistance for these families is insufficient.  In 2014, 6,000 children were sitting on wait lists for vouchers provided by our state government to subsidize the costs of pre-school programs for qualified low-income families.

To address this urgent shortcoming, I am proud to be a co-sponsor of An Act Relative to Universal Pre-K Access.  This important legislation recognizes that children age three and four should be part of our core public education system by adding them to their school districts’ Chapter 70 enrollment.  Chapter 70 is the school funding formula in Massachusetts.  School districts would be required to assemble a plan to provide high quality early education in order to receive state funding.  Implementation would initially focus on the highest-need districts and broaden to statewide coverage over five years.

Additionally, I’m pleased that the legislature recently increased funding for early education in the Fiscal Year 2016 state budget, and that we were able to successfully override Governor Baker’s veto of kindergarten expansion grants.  These grants provide important support for communities to expand and sustain full-day kindergarten programs in the public schools.

Expanding access to quality, affordable early education for all children will help maximize the potential of our youth, close the achievement gap, and ultimately strengthen Massachusetts’ economy.