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Early ed. chief sees "good chance" for education investments

Still early in his tenure at the top of the Department of Early Education and Care, Acting Commissioner Tom Weber now has the task of pushing the administration’s spending agenda, which over the next four years would increase the department’s $500 million budget by $340 million if Gov. Deval Patrick’s tax increases are adopted.

“I think we have a good chance,” Weber told the News Service about the prospects of Patrick’s proposed $900 million addition to the education budget. “I’m engaged on a daily basis in positive conversations with budget writers, and by that I mean with our colleagues in the Legislature, so I’m very optimistic that they appreciate the importance of education in Massachusetts; that they appreciate the importance of early education for our state strategy for growth and for having a strong Commonwealth.”

Patrick surprised some with a January push for $900 million in new education spending, accompanied by his more anticipated push for $1 billion in new transportation spending. Patrick has proposed financing those increases with a tax overhaul that includes a 1-point increase in the income tax and other reforms.

“The, I think, success of the governor’s proposal is going to be in no small part predicated on the credibility of the department and the work that we’ve done,” Weber told the News Service.

In 2004, the Legislature passed a law creating the Early Education and Care Department, and statutorily locking the state into a policy "to assure every child a fair and full opportunity to reach his full potential by providing and encouraging" early education.

New funding trickled in after the law passed, with the Legislature appropriating $7.1 million in fiscal year 2008, up from $4.6 million in fiscal year 2007. But the funding tap was shut off at the start of the recession, leaving the universal pre-school goal unrealized.

Since 2009, state and federal funds for early education have been cut by $80 million, according to early education advocates. With a limited capacity for new spending and other costly initiatives on the horizon, supporters fear universal pre-k is still years away.

Weber was appointed acting commissioner last week after former Early Education and Care Commissioner Sherri Killins resigned amid questions about a time-consuming superintendent training internship with the Ware Public Schools and her residence in Connecticut.

A former legislative director at the non-profit Strategies for Children and chief of staff to former Education Secretary Paul Reville, Weber said the change in leadership at EEC would not damage confidence in the department.

“Not at all. Honestly, I think people recognize that that was a personal issue around professional development, and that was not about the department’s performance or stability of the department,” Weber said.

A compendium of research showing that early education is the key to raising student success across the demographic spectrum has been accumulating over the past 15 years, Weber said.

“There’s amazing depth to the research and data,” Weber said. He said, “The body of research has grown and it’s deeper, and that’s led to it becoming widely accepted that investments in early education are probably the best investment that you can make in terms of closing achievement gaps.”

In the four years of funding increases Patrick has requested, the administration would aim to eliminate the waiting list where 30,000 children up to the age of 5 years old languish. At the same time, the department would aim to boost the quality of early education in the state.

“We want to provide access. We want more children to have access to early education and care, but we want to make sure it’s high quality,” Weber told a group of lawmakers and staffers at a Thursday morning briefing. He told the News Service the 30,000 on waiting lists are spread all across the state.

Educating children so they can read at grade level by third grade is a critical benchmark to their success reading and writing, Weber said.

According to an EEC report dated Feb. 15, 2013, there are 442,592 children younger than 5 years old, and one third of them are low-income, 17.4 percent are “English language learners,” 6.7 percent have special needs, and close to 1 percent are homeless.

While legislative leaders have indicated they might introduce a transportation financing bill separate from the governor’s budget, there has been little indication as to whether any of Patrick’s education funding increases will survive the budget process.

Patrick’s plan is in “alignment” with an “aspirational budget” the Board of Early Education and Care created in 2012, according to the report.

The aspirational budget added $15.5 million for “an investment in quality,” including a 3 percent pay raise for child care workers and $1 million for a quality rating system.

The aspirational budget also included $36.2 million, which would allow 4,900 income-eligible children to have access to early education, and it added roughly $17.6 million for transportation, which would allow the addition of one adult monitor on all vehicles carrying young children.

Those aspirations are similar to the additional funding for pay raises, Head Start funding and transportation that a majority of lawmakers asked House Speaker Robert DeLeo to include in the budget. Those lawmakers said early education teachers make $23,500 per year, making it difficult to retain talent.

Patrick’s request, which would add $131 million in early education spending in fiscal year 2014 and ramp up to $340 million in new funds over four years, is more ambitious than the aspirational budget passed in 2012. The additional spending items listed in the report’s summary of the aspirational budget added up to about $69 million.

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