State disputes report on cuts to prekindergarten spending

Pew Center says 22 percent axed

By David Abel
Globe Staff / October 22, 2009

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Massachusetts is one of 10 states this year to cut the amount of money it spends on prekindergarten education, reducing such spending by a greater percentage than all but one other state, according to a report by a national advocacy group that tracks money spent on early childhood education.

The report found that Massachusetts this fiscal year cut 22 percent of the budget for prekindergarten education, more than every state but Ohio, which cut 33 percent of its money for such programs.

Massachusetts state officials called the report skewed.

The report, by the Pew Center on the States, noted that Massachusetts cut aid for the universal prekindergarten program by $2.9 million to $8 million, the Head Start program by $1 million to $8 million, and scholarships, mental health services, and other “quality improvements’’ by $5.5 million to $18.3 million.

Overall, states this fiscal year invested a total of $5.3 billion in early education, a 1 percent increase over last year.

“In the majority of the states, legislators’ actions aligned with the research that shows high-quality pre-k provides dramatic returns on investment, improves children’s school readiness, and supports working families,’’ Susan K. Urahn, managing director of the Pew Center on the States, wrote in the report.

She didn’t specifically address the fall-off in education spending in Massachusetts, where officials have cut programs across the budget to deal with the state’s fiscal morass. But the report notes that many of the other states suffering larger budget shortfalls than Massachusetts either increased or maintained their budget for prekindergarten education.

State officials said the report distorts the picture of its efforts in early education.

They noted the report focuses on only three areas and doesn’t take into account the overall budget of the state Department of Early Education and Care, which fell only 3.4 percent to $565 million.

“I want to state in the strongest possible terms that this pre-k report is flat out wrong in characterizing the actions of this administration as anything other than highly supportive of high quality education and care,’’ said Secretary Paul Reville of the state Executive Office of Education. “We’re doing quite the reverse of what they’re saying we’re doing, and it’s outrageous.’’

He said that early education was spared many of the cuts other agencies suffered and that the report focuses on only about 10 percent of the 60,000 children in preschool programs.

“Early education care was probably the most privileged segments of state government, because the governor places such a high priority on it,’’ Reville said.

Wayne Weikel, chief of staff for the House Committee on Ways and Means, also disputed the report’s methodology.

“Comparing only those programs that are separate and distinct from programs funded in tandem with federal programs minimizes a vast portion of our pre-k program,’’ he said. “Massachusetts has embarked on a careful, deliberate course to increase the quality and accessibility of preschool programs.

Given the overall state budget, it is hard to argue that early education has not been a priority in our state.’’

Officials at Strategies for Children Inc., a Boston advocacy group, praised state officials for creating the nation’s first consolidated Department and Board of Early Education and Care, a universal pilot program that serves 6,600 children in nearly 100 cities and towns, and passing legislation promoting universally accessible early education programs for preschool-age children.

“In recent years, with critical support from Governor Patrick and the state Legislature, Massachusetts has laid the groundwork for building a universally accessible, high-quality system of early education and care,’’ said Chad d’Entremont, the group’s research and policy director.

He noted that about 70 percent of all Massachusetts children ages 3 to 5 are in some form of preschool.

But he said the quality should be improved, noting that only 43 percent of the state’s preschools are accredited and that only 30 percent of the state’s preschool teachers and 18 percent of family child-care providers have a bachelor’s degree.

He said comparisons between states are difficult, because it’s hard to compare different programs.

“What the report makes clear is that, unlike other states, Massachusetts is not sustaining investments in high-quality prekindergarten,’’ d’Entremont said.