Legislation calls for universal access to pre-kindergarten programs in Massachusetts

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BOSTON — Backers of a proposal to make pre-kindergarten programs available to all 3- and 4-years olds in the state regardless of family income said it would help narrow the academic achievement gap that exists among students from varying socio-economic backgrounds.

The bill, unveiled on Tuesday, would allow school districts to develop universal pre-kindergarten programs and submit them for funding under the state's Chapter 70 educational formula. The programs would be phased in over five years, with priority given to school districts with the most children in need of access to early education.

Supporters of the measure pointed to statistics that show 39 percent of third-graders in Massachusetts are not reading at grade level but those with access to early education programs are far more likely to succeed in public school. They also said students from low-income families who participate in early education are 40 percent less likely to require special education services, 30 percent more likely to graduate from high school and twice as likely to go to college.

"A high-quality preschool education has been shown to narrow the achievement gap by as much as half," said Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone. "That's staggering."

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat and the lead sponsor of the bill, said she believed the bill, if approved, would help tens of thousands of preschoolers, including about 6,000 now on a waiting list for early education programs that are subsidized by the state.

Chang-Diaz said she could not provide an estimate of what the measure would cost or how it would be paid for. But she said studies have shown every dollar spent on pre-kindergarten programs "delivers a return that reaches from $7 to $17."

The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center estimated last year it would cost about $1.5 billion to cover the annual cost of expanding public schools to offer universal pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds not currently receiving any public support for their early education.

The bill was unveiled on the day that Gov. Charlie Baker announced that the state faced a projected $765 million budget deficit for the fiscal year ending June 30. Baker, a Republican, has blamed the shortfall on excessive state spending.

Boston public schools kindergarten teacher Colleen Galvin Labbe appeared with lawmakers at the Statehouse to push for the bill. She cited an example of a student who was not as well prepared to learn as classmates who had attended pre-kindergarten programs.

"She became very discouraged when she started to realize that she was unable to do some of the things her classmates were doing," Labbe said. "She didn't know the names of the letters of the alphabet, how to count from one to 10 or how to write her name."

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