All Dressed Up with Nowhere to Go: Massachusetts Policy Update

In Massachusetts, local communities are increasingly demanding state investment in high-quality early education. Between January and June, 13 communities developed strategic plans for preschool expansion, thanks to state-funded planning grants.

The grants piggyback off of Massachusetts’ federal Preschool Expansion Grant, which provides high-quality full-day, full-year preschool to more than 850 four-year-olds annually in five cities.

Strategies for Children collaborates with several of these communities, including Springfield, Holyoke, New Bedford, Lowell, and a four-town region on Cape Cod. Given current fiscal realities – slow state revenue growth which limits spending on new initiatives – our approach is to ensure as many communities as possible are “ready” to spend resources effectively when new funding becomes available. Local strategic plans, needs assessments, collaborative culture, and visions of success for children and families are essential for community readiness. These conditions also help advocacy groups like ours make the case to our fiscally constrained state leaders, many of whom are strong supporters of high-quality early education.

But during the last week of June, as a 6-member legislative conference committee was finalizing the fiscal year 2017 state budget, a projected $750 million budget gap poured cold water on advocates’ hopes of new funding for high-quality early education.

Just days earlier, preschool expansion legislation officially died for the 2015-2016 legislative session. On June 21, State House News Service reported, “The Legislature's Joint Committee on Education sent all 10 of the [early education] bills to study, ending their move through the legislative process.” These bills include An Act Ensuring High-Quality Pre-Kindergarten Education, modeled after New Jersey’s pre-k program. The bill required local expansion plans and mixed-provider collaboration, and called for phasing in preschool funding over five years beginning with the highest-need communities.

After hearing how our local partner communities will have to wait at least another year for preschool funding, Strategies for Children board president Paul O’Brien remarked “So, they’re all dressed up with nowhere to go.”

Budget Highlights

Here’s a detailed look at how high-quality early education fared in the FY17 state budget:

  • At $540.6 million, plus a $12.5 million rate reserve to increase early educator salaries, funding for the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) and its programs increases for the fourth straight fiscal year, but has still not returned to pre-recession levels.
  • Most line items are stable or level-funded, including child care access accounts, resource and referral agencies, and Head Start state supplement.
  • The $12.5 million rate reserve will support workforce salaries in early education and care programs that receive state subsidies. This is more than double the $5 million rate reserve that the Legislature funded in FY16, and will help address the ongoing workforce crisis. Early education advocates rallied to support the Legislature’s vote to override Governor Baker’s veto of $7.5 million from the rate reserve.
  • A new Quality Improvement line item in the Department of Early Education and Care’s budget consolidates funds transferred from existing line items including Universal Pre-Kindergarten quality grants, Early Childhood Mental Health, Services for Infants and Parents, and EEC administration. $4 million is earmarked for QRIS, including $2 million in direct grants to programs. The consolidation signals the Legislature and Baker Administration’s shared agreement on the importance of quality in the early education and care system.
  • Full-day kindergarten grants were eliminated, an $18.59 million cut from the current fiscal year. These grants to local school districts support a variety of quality initiatives including: paraprofessional salaries, professional development, special needs inclusion, kindergarten transition activities, and accreditation support. The elimination of the grant will have a negative impact on kindergarten quality across the commonwealth. School superintendents and teachers union leaders have so far been unsuccessful at urging the state to restore the cuts. The full impact of the kindergarten grant’s elimination may not be known until the school year begins in the fall. While 93% of the state’s kindergarten students are enrolled in full-day kindergarten, districts are only required to provide a half-day program and more than 60 of them charge tuition. Failure to sustain near-universal enrollment in full-day kindergarten will threaten the state’s efforts to create a high-quality birth to grade three continuum.

Legislative Leaders Launch New Initiatives

Despite some setbacks, some opportunities are on the horizon for early education. In February, Senate President Stan Rosenberg launched a Kids First initiative, a multi-issue strategy for ensuring children’s long-term success. The first phase of work focuses on birth through 4th grade. In May, House Speaker Robert DeLeo launched the Early Education and Care Business Advisory Group, an opportunity for business leaders to lend their management expertise, strategic guidance, and financial advice on the critical needs of the early education and care workforce in Massachusetts. We applaud the House Speaker and Senate President for these initiatives and will be paying close attention as they develop.

-Titus DosRemedios
Director of Research and Policy
Strategies for Children, Inc.

(August 4, 2016)

 

 

Photo Caption:
Massachusetts Secretary of Education Jim Peyser and Commissioner of Early Education and Care Tom Weber testify at a September 2015 legislative hearing on early education and care. Photo credit: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children