Early childhood education, primarily aimed at 3- and 4-year-olds, rarely gets the attention it deserves. Fortunately, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh recently brought attention to the importance and the challenges of educating children at an age when the brain is experiencing its most rapid development and behavioral and learning skills — skills that may last a lifetime — are being formed.
Walsh announced a five-year program to bring “high-quality” education to all 4-year-olds in the city. He repeatedly emphasized “high-quality” and partnerships between city school administrators and community groups “to extend pre-K programming.”
A Boston Globe story featured a mother of a 4-year-old in the Boston Head Start program who said seven months of Head Start helped prepare her daughter for school and the two of them to “become full partners in her education.”
That’s what “high-quality” early education is about. It prepares children to learn and to socially interact while helping and guiding parents, most of whom work one or two or more jobs, to provide for their families.
Unfortunately, finding funds for high-quality early education is a constant challenge. Just ask Sue Todd, CEO of Pathways for Children, based in Gloucester and serving 14 North Shore communities. “In my 38 years with Head Start and the other programs we sponsor, hardly a year goes by when we have not had to face new funding challenges. Today is no different.”
It may be just as challenging to find adequate funding for K-12 and to share those funds equitably to achieve the best outcomes. A few weeks ago, a packed Statehouse hearing heard legislators, the Baker administration and advocates debate school funding formulas. The subject was on a funding shortfall with particular focus on the impact on minority and low-income students and gaps in performance between wealthier and lower-income communities.
Not addressed was pre-k early education and the influence it could have on learning and countering the increasing frequency of social and behavioral issues requiring interventions at school.
Sadly, the U.S. is ranked 32nd of 39 countries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in the percentage of 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in early education programs.
There is plenty of evidence to support more funding. MIT published a study in 2005 showing that every dollar invested in early education returns $13 in future taxpayer savings. The 40-year-long Perry study showed similar results.
Unfortunately, unintended consequences of well-intentioned policies have plagued early education programs for years.
Recently, “the grand bargain” adopted by the Massachusetts Legislature last year created a new set of challenges for programs like Pathways. The “bargain” led to adopting minimum wage increases over several years and avoided ballot initiatives considered disastrous for the economy. But it also pushed some low-income families out of eligibility for some Head Start programs, particularly in coastal communities where the cost of living is high and affordable housing stock is low, because federal poverty levels that determine eligibility were not changed.
Head Start provides comprehensive services to help families become active participants in their child’s education and address numerous social and behavioral needs. Vision, hearing and nutritional services enable Head Start to detect and address concerns early, which helps avoid costly special education services for some children as they enter public school.
As Todd notes, “the increase in minimum wages was certainly well intended, but collateral effects have not been adequately addressed. As a result, our board of directors and management team are doing what we often do: We’re taking a hard look at our own business model to ensure that we continue to provide the highest quality education and support services for children and for families, which in turn make our communities stronger.”
At some point, early education might rise to the surface. There is some good news. It’s seen in the Boston initiative. And its seen in an innovative partnership linking Salem State University students with an innovative School Department program and Pathways’ Head Start program.
But much more needs to be done to secure funding from both public and private sources. And more can be done to avoid unintended consequences that address one issue only to hurt others, including families in need of the early education support that generates a significant economic return from every dollar invested.
Carl Gustin is Gloucester resident who writes occasionally on national, regional and local issues.