Lawmakers send early education access bills to dead-end study
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JUNE 21, 2016.....This is not the year that universal pre-kindergarten will become law in Massachusetts, with key House and Senate lawmakers differing on whether now is the time to act.
Ahead of a deadline last Friday to act on legislation relating expanding access to early education, the Legislature's Joint Committee on Education sent all 10 of the bills to study, ending their move through the legislative process.
"We're just not in a position to expand until we improve quality," Education Committee House chair Rep. Alice Peisch said.
Expanding access to early education gained attention in the 2014 gubernatorial race and remains a goal of many elected officials, but talk has pivoted to a need to first improve the quality of the early education system, particularly by boosting the hourly rates paid to providers.
Included in the study order were bills establishing universal pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten (S 253, S 268, H 489), pre-kindergarten for students meeting certain requirements (H 3402, H 336, S 266), a grant program for "high-quality pre-kindergarten education" (S 267, H 462); pre-kindergarten pilot programs (H 341) and a commission to study universal pre-kindergarten (H 326).
The committee on three occasions granted itself more time to decide on the early education bills.
On June 9, when the Senate adopted an order allowing 11 more days to report out the legislation, the committee's Senate chair said members would "try to arrive at a critical mass of agreement for what to do about these bills."
"The committee has been working mightily on this topic, which is why we've continued to hold them for this long," Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz said.
Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, sponsored one of the universal pre-kindergarten bills sent to study.
"Of course I'm disappointed," Chang-Diaz said in an email to the News Service Monday. "There's no defensible reason I can see to keep treading water while we study this issue to the nth degree. Decades' worth of research affirms that high quality early ed is one of the single biggest levers available to us for closing achievement gaps, and has identified important criteria for successful implementation. At some point, we have to act."
Peisch told the News Service that investing in the early education workforce "didn't leave, realistically, any funding for significant expansion of early education." Peisch's bill creating an early education grant program was among those included in the study.
Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat, said she also wants to wait until the conclusion of a two-year federal pilot program in five Massachusetts communities, focused on expanding early education.
"It seems that we could produce better legislation if we had that data available to us," she said. "To report something out without the data as well as without the funding to really expand high quality early education seems premature."
With more House than Senate members on joint committees, House lawmakers typically have more say in which bills advance to the full Legislature.
The House and the Senate have also gone in separate directions this session on higher education and K-12 education, funding the University of Massachusetts differently in their respective budgets and diverging on the question of charter schools and overall public school funding.
The Senate's fiscal 2017 budget allocates $13 million more for the UMass system than the House version, and the two spending bills also contain different amounts of Chapter 70 education aid for cities and towns.
With voters set to decide on charter expansion on November's ballot, the Senate has passed a bill tying an increase in the cap on charter enrollment to new public education funding, and a compromise between legislative leaders to avert the ballot question appears unlikely.
Earlier this year, House and Senate leaders launched separate initiatives dealing with early education.
DeLeo, in a March address at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, announced the creation of an Early Education and Care Business Advisory Group, citing a need to support the early education workforce and "move upwards and give early educators, parents, and, most of all, our children a system they deserve."
In January, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg announced his chamber's new "Kids First" child development initiative, led by Sen. Sal DiDomenico, to explore areas ranging from prenatal care through post-secondary education. DiDomenico, an Everett Democrat, sponsored three of the universal pre-kindergarten bills sent to study.
The two branches have reached accord on a need to ramp up the rates paid to early educators, though their budgets pour different amounts into a fund to increase those rates. The House allocates $15 million and the Senate $10 million.
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