BOSTON - A group of state legislators is pushing a plan to provide universal pre-kindergarten to all three- and four-year-olds in Massachusetts.
State Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Boston Democrat, said Tuesday that she will introduce legislation requiring the state to pay for full-day preschool as part of its education funding formula.
Supporters of the bill say pre-kindergarten will help prepare children for kindergarten, improve their skills in reading and other areas as they continue on to elementary school and help them later in life, in education and employment.
"There are precious few things we could do that would be more powerful for our state, cure more of the ills and reap more of the prosperity that we see as a people than to invest in early education," Chang-Diaz said.
Chang-Diaz's bill would use a mix of pre-kindergarten seats in public schools and state contracts with private providers. It would be phased in over five years, with a focus on the most needy districts early on.
The bill does not yet have a cost estimate attached to it.
The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a liberal-leaning research institute, estimated that providing full-day pre-kindergarten for three and four year olds through the public school system would cost between $860 million and $1.48 billion a year, depending on assumptions about the cost of educating each child. The center said the state could alternatively expand the current program of reimbursing private providers for low-income children. Or it could create a public/private partnership, similar to one that exists in Boston, where public education funding is paid to private providers.
Chang-Diaz, asked about cost, cited research showing that the return on investment for pre-kindergarten is between $7 and $17 for every $1 spent, taking into account factors like lower special education costs, lower incarceration rates and increased earnings.
"The fact of the matter is it isn't going to cost the state, it will give a return on investment," Chang-Diaz said. She said she knows the bill will have an up-front cost, but she believes pre-kindergarten should be treated the same way as public education for older children, as a public priority the state should pay for.
The push comes as Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, announced that the state is facing a deficit of $765 million for fiscal year 2015.
Baker has committed to not raising taxes. Asked about possible funding for universal pre-kindergarten, Baker declined to comment specifically but said, "If there are opportunities once we deal with the budget issues and the ramification of them to make investments in programs that are important, we'll be more than interested in doing it."
During his gubernatorial campaign, Baker said he supports "targeted" pre-kindergarten, focusing on districts with failing schools.
His Democratic opponent, outgoing attorney general Martha Coakley made universal pre-kindergarten a core of her campaign, but to a more limited extent than Chang-Diaz. Coakley wanted to spend $150 million over four years to take 17,000 low-income children off a waiting list for state-subsidized pre-kindergarten.
Chang-Diaz's proposal has support from 17 Democratic co-sponsors, including Pittsfield Sen. Ben Downing, Pittsfield Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, Northampton Rep. Peter Kocot, Springfield Rep. Jose Tosado, and Holyoke Rep. Aaron Vega. She also received support Tuesday from two of the legislature's fiscally conservative Republicans – Rep. Shaunna O'Connell of Taunton and Rep. Geoff Diehl of Whitman.
O'Connell said she believes that "education is the best gift we can give children," and she wants to make sure children whose families cannot afford it have access to preschool. She said she believes the state can find money to pay for education by eliminating waste and fraud and finding savings from other government departments.
Local officials including Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone and Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson attended at a Statehouse event supporting the bill, as did teachers, parents, education advocates and a class of pre-school students.
Curtatone said the conversation about cost "should not push us away from the importance of the value of providing education for every child from birth until they move on from our public education system."
"How can we afford, as a commonwealth, to keep leaving kids behind?" Curtatone said.
Colleen Galvin Labbe, a kindergarten teacher at a Boston public school, said students who attend pre-kindergarten are more likely to know the alphabet, know how to share and be able to adjust to the routine of a school day than those entering school in kindergarten. Students without pre-kindergarten "are already starting behind many of their peers," she said.
It is hard to pin down how many students would benefit. The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center estimated in 2014 that 52,000 children are receiving public support for pre-kindergarten, while 105,000 are either paying privately or not attending. A national survey by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which advocates for children, using data from 2006 to 2012, found that approximately 60,000 Massachusetts children are not attending preschool.
Asked how many three and four year olds want pre-kindergarten but cannot afford it, Chang-Diaz said there are currently 6,000 income-eligible preschoolers on a waiting list, but many people do not bother signing up because it is hard to get a spot.