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Senate early ed agenda up against tight fiscal picture
State House News Service, Story by Katie Lannan, May 2, 2017

Raising wages for early educators, eliminating the waiting list for early education and care, ensuring access to after-school and summer programs, and expanding state education aid to cover younger children are among the pricy "short-term" priorities of a Senate working group seeking to strengthen childhood development.

The Senate's "Kids First" working group, launched in January 2016, released recommendations focusing on "the critical years of birth to age 9" and dealing with issues of access, quality, readiness and integration.

"To me, this is the next phase of education reform, and we did a pretty good job on the first phase," said Paul Reville, who served as education secretary under Gov. Deval Patrick. "This is even more important and more critical."

The group, chaired by Sen. Sal DiDomenico of Everett, also called for a commitment to halving the number of third grade students not reading at grade level in the next 10 years. DiDomenico said for 15 years in Massachusetts, about 40 percent of third graders have not been been reading proficiently and said his group's recommendations will help give educators the resources needed to boost the numbers reading at grade-level.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a member of the working group and Senate chair of the Education Committee, said the lack of improvement in early reading proficiency rates is "a huge demerit for us as a state."

Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, said early education needs to be incorporated into the concept of -- and financing for -- public education, touting the report's recommendation that the state should expand its Chapter 70 funding for local schools to cover programs for children as young as 2 years, 9 months.

The report calls for complete elimination of the waiting list for early education and care for low-income children 5 years old and younger, a list Chang-Diaz said currently stands at 15,000 kids. Delivering early education to more children was a major focus of Martha's Coakley's 2014 campaign for governor.
"Massachusetts policymakers face a stark fiscal choice over the next decade," the report concludes. "They can continue to sprinkle small (and often fleeting) funding increases across a few educational line items in the state budget, or they can radically re-think and re-imagine the way we prioritize spending on children and families."

The biggest impediment to the recommendations appears to be revenue availability. Despite a nearly full employment economy, tax revenue growth is slow and most of the new revenue is gobbled up by large health care and pension programs, as well as the MBTA. Gov. Charlie Baker and legislative leaders are facing a $220 million revenue shortfall in this year's budget as they wait for an announcement this week on April tax collections.

The working group did not provide cost estimates for all of its recommendations, saying costs would depend on implementation details and regional needs. Eliminating the early education waitlist would cost approximately $155 million, the report said, and ensuring access to high-quality after-school and summer programming in high-needs communities would cost $1,747 per student for after-school programs and $1,440 for summer learning.

Other groups recently have urged greater investment in education, including calls to reform the Chapter 70 formula and increase early educator salaries.
Gov. Baker's administration announced in March that early education programs that provide care for low-income families in Massachusetts will receive a 6 percent increase in rates paid by the state, a financial jolt that may help with employee retention.

House lawmakers, in their fiscal 2018 budget, added a $5 million increase to a salary reserve account for early education workers, bringing the account to $20 million as the budget moves to the Senate.

DiDomenico said increasing compensation is a "critical component" of the report because 39 percent of early educators receive public assistance.
"That is a shame," he said. "They're educating our kids, and they can't support their own families."

The report said more money for education and social supports "is not the answer" if it does not come with "a plan to properly invest new resources."
"It's not a one-year plan. It's not a one-bill effort," Senate President Stan Rosenberg said. "This is going to roll out in document after document, bill after bill, budget after budget, but together we can really change this commonwealth."

According to the report, the average annual cost of infant care for one child is $17,062, and costs at a child care center for an infant and a 4-year-old come out to an average $29,843, or about one-third of the median income for families with children.

Underinvesting in a child's education can have added financial costs as well, according to the report, which said each Massachusetts high school dropout creates an average $349,000 in additional costs to taxpayers.

The working group -- which also included Democratic Sens. Jennifer Flanagan, Jason Lewis, Patricia Jehlen, James Welch, Joan Lovely, Linda Dorcena Forry and Eric Lesser and Republican Sen. Richard Ross -- plans to introduce two further reports addressing older children's needs.

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