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A department for children

THE DECISION to set up a Department of Early Education and Care in Massachusetts promises to give preschoolers the academic, social, and emotional skills they need to be ready for school. This effort shouldn't be spattered by political battles.

In the 2005 budget, the Legislature has poured the foundation for a universal early education system. Behind the scenes were turf wars over whether and how the work should be shared by the Department of Education and the Office of Child Care Services. The Legislature settled the fight: The Department of Early Education and Care will be independent, guided by a nine-member board.

Governor Romney has filed an ill-advised amendment to keep the board "within" his health and human services secretariat to create "administrative efficiencies" but outside its supervision and control. It would be better to keep the department independent. The Legislature's plan requires moving much or all of the work done by the Office of Child Care Services to the new Early Education Department.

Unfortunately, Ardith Wieworka, the commissioner of the state's Office of Child Care Services, was asked last week to resign. She refused, and yesterday morning she was fired.

Commissioner for eight years, Wieworka has been praised for being honest and straightforward and for communicating well with legislators and child-care providers. She might have been a useful diplomat in helping the state pull off this transformation.

Ronald Preston, the state's secretary of health and human services, initially said the firing occurred not because of her performance as commissioner. He says he offered her a job overseeing the licensing of facilities used by the Office of Child Care Services and the Department of Youth Services, adding that this is vital work.

In an interview yesterday, Preston said the reason he asked for her resignation was that she failed to keep him informed of the possibility that a new department of early education might be created. Wieworka says she kept him informed "every step of the way."

It is unfortunate that Preston could not work out a way to make use of Wieworka's considerable experience and talent.

The challenge for the state is to stay true to its preschoolers. Preston has to move quickly to find a new commissioner with the passion, political savvy, and people skills to manage the transition. In part, this means addressing the concerns of child-care providers upset about Wieworka's departure. It also means keeping the focus on helping children achieve academic success. 

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