Early education: Expense or investment?

File photoChildren in the Pathways for Children Infant and Toddler program look for their tiles on a mosaic wall. 

Despite additional funding in last year’s bipartisan federal spending bill, early childhood education in Massachusetts continues to be shortchanged. It’s time the state Legislature and Baker administration address the unintended consequences of well-intended actions that are producing perverse and far-reaching results. 

Standards issued in 2003 by the Early Childhood Advisory Council under its then-chairman (and current secretary of education and Early Education and Care board chairman) James Peyser include the requirement that by 2017 newly hired teachers working with 3- and 4-year-old children have a bachelor’s degree. The 81-page standards document noted, “Teachers in child care and Head Start programs are not paid sufficiently to attract and retain professionals with degrees.” 

The council recognized that, “Higher standards will require that teachers be paid higher salaries and that funding will need to be provided for the financial supports and other resources to allow programs to meet these standards.” Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. This should be a bipartisan issue with bipartisan solutions.

Remarks last month by House Speaker Robert DeLeo are encouraging. He said, “We will help build a system that early educators, parents and most of all our children deserve. To do so we will enhance our three-tier strategy, which places a premium building a strong workforce to ensure improved access to high quality EEC programs.”

His remarks follow a recommendation from the EEC board headed by Secretary Peyser calling for a $31 million increase in funding for early education teachers, an important first step to acknowledge the value of early education teachers. This would be on the heels of $1 billion in additional funding for the federal portion of early education, although whether the $31 million actually makes it into the state budget is an open question.

At early education organizations, such as Pathways for Children (which serves 13 North Shore communities, including Gloucester and Salem), many teachers have either attained or are pursuing bachelor’s degrees. That would be a good thing if the council’s warning that such a requirement would lead to higher salaries — “and that funding needs to be provided” — had not been largely ignored.

Well-educated and trained preschool teachers with bachelor’s degrees are being recruited as K-12 teachers. The incentives for leaving pre-K education for K-12 are compelling. A pre-K teacher, working year-round and making about $32,000 a year, can move to a public school position — take the summer off — and in many cases get paid twice as much.

The majority of pre-K teachers are dedicated to working year-round with children from infants to 4-year-olds, as well as their families. Many will resist moving, but for many new teachers who are raising families the draw of higher pay and longer vacations is hard to resist.

Pathways for Children, top-rated nationally with a long history of little staff turnover, has six openings for teachers but few applicants, mostly because of pay and work advantages in K-12. Those vacancies represent nearly 10 percent of existing positions. Similar stories are heard around the state.

The need for teachers is greater than ever. Yet, the ability to attract them is undermined by state inaction to fund higher rates for teachers. The result is empty classrooms and children who are not being served.

This is one of the unintended consequences of well-meaning policies. Another is found in the oversight of programs. Head Start standards are tough and its audits are thorough. State standards are duplicative in both outcomes and requirements. Pathways is top-ranked by Head Start and accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which should be enough to achieve “deemed status.” Instead of responding to yet another audit, another round of interviews and site visits, management and staff, including teachers could focus more time on teaching and developing children.

These two areas deserve consideration by legislators and the administration. Yes, more money is needed to achieve some level of balance between teacher qualifications and compensation. But as important would be to make early education more effective and efficient through improvements in the oversight process and in the coordination of various state and local agencies that work with children and their families.

Based on a 2005 MIT study, it would be a wise investment. MIT found that every dollar invested in quality early care and education “saves taxpayers $13 in future costs.”  That makes well-run early education programs a good investment, not just an expense. Now would be a good time to give early childhood education a higher priority in public policy and legislative action.

Carl Gustin is a member of the board of directors of Pathways for Children. which has 13 locations across the North Shore, including Gloucester and Salem.

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