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Lawmakers push pre-k bill as way to close achievement gap

Young children who live in communities with under-performing schools could get increased opportunities to attend pre-kindergarten, under legislation being pushed by two lawmakers who say the plan will help close the academic achievement gap.

Backers of a bill that would increase state grants to expand pre-school programs say there is momentum on Beacon Hill to get more children enrolled in pre-kindergarten, despite a $1.8 billion budget deficit projected for fiscal year 2016.

Rep. Alice Peisch (D-Wellesley) and Sen. Sal DiDomenico (D-Everett) filed legislation (H 462/SD 1752) that expands grants to communities with struggling school districts that are ranked Level 5, 4, or 3 by state education officials.

Communities awarded grants by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would have two years to implement pre-school expansion programs, in both public and private settings. The legislation is modeled after a similar law in New Jersey.

The legislation has more than 50 co-sponsors. Asked about the likelihood of increasing access to pre-school programs while the state faces a budget deficit, Peisch, who co-chairs the Education Committee, pointed to the fact that Speaker Robert DeLeo made pre-school a highlight of his first speech before the House after he was re-elected speaker this year.

DeLeo said in February that House lawmakers will come up with "our own plan to further provide early access to high quality programming for our youngest children," and noted 20 years have passed since the last omnibus education reform law.

The bill Peisch and DiDomenico filed is one of several this legislative session aimed at boosting pre-school availability.

While the cost of expanding pre-school grants is still being evaluated, DiDomenico estimates it could be more than $10 million to "put a dent" in the number of children who currently do not attend pre-school programs in communities that would be eligible for grants.

"Who's going to say they don't support pre-school? No one is going to say they don't support it. We should be saying at what level do you support it? That's the more important question," DiDomenico told a crowd of supporters gathered at the State House to discuss the push to increase access to pre-school.

Proponents held an event to launch the "Pre-K for MA" campaign, which is organized by education non-profits Strategies for Children and Stand for Children.

Supporters said they are trying to take a "bite" out the problem by getting more toddlers in certain communities into pre-school programs, rather than push for universal pre-kindergarten across the state.

Former Gov. Deval Patrick made a push for universal pre-kindergarten during his last year in office. Lawmakers passed a fiscal year 2015 budget that marked the largest overall funding increase for early education since 2008, with $15 million in new spending to serve about 1,700 income-eligible children on waiting lists for early education and a new $1 million pre-kindergarten classroom grant program.

Despite the funding increases and grants, proponents of expanding pre-school said there are still too many children who never see a classroom until they start kindergarten.

Lowell Public School Superintendent Jean Franco said among the kindergartners who started school in 2014-2015 at her schools, 565 out of 1,300 did not attend pre-school. Lowell received one of the new expansion grants that will provide space for 156 pre-school students.

"I will not rest until every one of those 565 children have the opportunity to go to school, and be part of what we do in public ed, which is change the future," Franco said.

DiDomenico said when his sons were 3- and 4-years old they attended pre-kindergarten in their community, which was offered for free. Until he was elected to the Legislature, DiDomenico said he believed every child had the same opportunity wherever they lived in the state.

"I always thought why should my kids have that opportunity, and kids in my community have that opportunity, and not all kids across the entire state?" DiDomenico said.

Peisch said there is a persistent academic gap between students in low-performing school districts and more high-performing schools.

"I have come to the conclusion that one of the reasons for that is our children, unfortunately, do not start on a level playing field," Peisch told the group during the event. "If you look at the high-performing districts you will see a much higher percentage of kids who have been in some kind of early education long before they ever got to kindergarten."

Peisch said lawmakers cannot continue to treat early education as something they say they all support "but when it comes to putting your money where your mouth is we tend to back off."

The conversation around pre-school has evolved from the benefits of early education to making it accessible to more children, Peisch said.

"We need to get to the point where it is accessible for all children," she said.

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