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Early education sector hoping to build off recent state investments

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, FEB. 5, 2014…..Jill McCain Santiago, an immigration attorney, recalled when her sons were newborns she set up a Pack ‘n Play in her office and juggled court appearances between naps and nursing because she could not find affordable child care. 

McCain Santiago, a Cambridge resident, said she went back to work one week after each of her sons was born because her family needed the income she provided as a lawyer running her own firm - organizers say McCain Santiago had incurred $120,000 in student loan debt. 

She joined hundreds of parents, early educators, and child care program directors who gathered at the State House Tuesday hoping to persuade lawmakers to once again increase funding in the state budget to eliminate the 40,000- plus children on a waitlist for pre-school program vouchers, and to bump up early educators’ salaries. 

After a few months, McCain Santiago said, it became impossible to bring her babies into the office, and she and her husband struggled to find affordable, quality day care. Eventually, her husband quit his job for one year to take care of the boys, who are now 2 ½ and 4 years old. 

After waiting two years, her family received a voucher last year and a slot in a child care program when the Legislature increased early education funding, enabling thousands of low-income families to come off the waitlist. 

While elected officials often cite early education as a priority, annual state budget talks have not always led to major investments, with fixed state government costs consuming much of the budget and advocates competing for limited funding with all of the other interest groups on Beacon Hill, including those pushing for K-12 and public higher education funding and investments in mental health, human services, or public safety, for example. State budget writers expect tax collections to rise 4.9 percent next year, making new revenues available for the budget. 

Gov. Deval Patrick’s budget for fiscal 2015 proposes boosting education funding for programs from pre-school to college. Patrick is calling for a new $15 million investment in early education that the administration predicts will open access to programs for 1,700 children, and a $3.1 million increase in spending designed to expand full-day kindergarten programs. 

Both Senate President Therese Murray (D-Plymouth) and House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) indicated to the crowd gathered in the Great Hall they supported additional funding for early education programs. 

Advocates and educators are looking for a repeat of budget increases the Legislature approved in fiscal year 2014 when $15 million was added for pre-school funding, and an additional $11.5 million for salary increases for early education teachers.

Early Education and Care Commissioner Thomas Weber said the increases marked the first time in three years there was an expansion to programs and services. Education at an early age improves literacy rates and math skills, and helps close the achievement gap for lower-income students, Weber said. 

“There is no better investment that we can make than in early education and care,” Weber told the crowd. 

Murray said lawmakers will continue to work toward seeing every child in the state is enrolled in a pre-school program, and added that early childhood educators should be paid higher wages on par with the level of training necessary for the job. 

Murray said during budget season there are a lot of priorities, and stressed that early education and care will garner attention from the Senate. “This is really important,” she said.

DeLeo said early education and care has become a priority in Massachusetts and on the national level, mentioning how President Barack Obama often highlights the need in speeches. 

“The work that is being done in the field of early education and care is not only vital to the current economy by helping working parents, but to the economy of the future,” DeLeo said. “The children we educate and care for today are the citizens of tomorrow.”

DeLeo pointed out the increased state funding in the fiscal 2014 budget, and said, “This year the House will do our best to support all that you do for our children.” 

DeLeo urged advocates when speaking to lawmakers to impress upon them how their programs impact families across the state. 

The Legislature in this year’s budget also created a special commission on early education and care to investigate broadening early education programs. The commission, which filed its report on Dec. 31, recommended increasing compensation for early educators to reduce the 29 percent turnover rate; revamping Department of Early Education and Care reimbursement rates paid to care providers to reflect the cost of care; increasing funding to reduce the more than 40,000 children on the waiting list for early ed programs; and increasing funding for licensing oversight. 

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