Advocates for children in Massachusetts are looking to rally the business community to back additional state funding for early education. At a conference in Springfield today they pointed to recent momentum on Beacon Hill toward the goal of universal pre-kindergarten.
The new $40 billion state budget approved by the Massachusetts Legislature last Friday includes a $15 million increase in funds for early education. Following an $18 million bump in pre-school spending by the state last year, early education advocates say it marks the largest increase in funding in decades.
" I feel the stars are in alignment, that people are really getting the fact we need to invest in young children," said Sally Fuller, the director of a community-based child literacy campaign in Springfield.
She also pointed to two recent reports from the legislature. One from an advisory group convened by House Speaker Robert DeLeo tied early education to the future of the state’s economy. The Senate report “Kids First” sketched out a wide variety of policies to put the health, welfare, and education of children at the top of the state’s priorities.
Democratic State Senator Eric Lesser said even with the recent increase in state funding for early education there is a long way to go toward the goal to provide high quality preschool to every family in Massachusetts that wants it.
"These are marginal improvements, " said Lesser. "We need to do a lot more."
About 100 business and community leaders at Monday’s conference heard a success story from an early childhood development activist in Florida – one of three states with universal pre-kindergarten education for 4-year-olds.
David Lawrence Jr., chairman of The Children’s Movement of Florida, talked about the campaign advocates waged that led to the passage of a state constitutional amendment to establish a voluntary pre-k program funded by voter-approved local property tax increases.
"What we are trying to do is build a movement, a movement that is about everyone's child," said Lawrence. " It is about making sure all children get off to a decent start in life."
Lawrence points out that just 40 percent of Massachusetts fourth-graders are proficient in reading, generally recognized as an indicator of future academic success.
" That is an unsafe position for the Commonwealth and the nation to have," said Lawrence.
Rick Sullivan, director of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, said the state’s business community realizes the importance of early education to the future of the state’s economy, but there is no consensus on how to pay for it.
"It is a matter of budget priorities and where to put the money, but the biggest issue for the business community is the workforce, and that training starts early," said Sullivan.
The EDC of Western Massachusetts and the Springfield Business Leaders for Education co-sponsored Monday’s event with the Davis Foundation and Reading Success by 4th Grade.