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Early education and care and out-of-school programs vital to children’s lifelong learning

Wayne Ysaguirre

Preparing our children for a lifetime of learning requires accessibility to high-quality early education and care programs as well as a consistent, qualified workforce. Great educators are the key to improving outcomes for children. We know that, and it starts at birth, not in kindergarten.

The existing career pathway for our early educator workforce is unsustainable. With an average salary range of $21,000-$25,000 and a turnover rate of 30 percent in our early learning and out-of-school programs, it becomes increasingly challenging to retain high-quality educators. Too many skilled teachers either leave early education for district K-12 schools that pay higher salaries or leave the field entirely.

The state Department of Early Education and Care (DEEC) has long recognized the need for a career ladder to define professional growth in early education and out-of-school time, and its potential to remedy the inadequate compensation of educators in this field.

In Massachusetts, there are more than 8,800 early education and care community-based programs employing over 40,000 people, with revenues of $1.5 billion. A meaningful investment in centers providing this elemental foundation for children is long overdue.

In Boston, early education and care programs like Nurtury serve thousands of young people, provide employment to educators and give many parents the opportunities to work. They create a strong foundation for young children to absorb the literacy and math skills and develop the social and emotional competence that can propel them to success in school and beyond.

However, despite all of the evidence that high-quality early education and care programs play a critical role in child development and successful long-term outcomes, our state’s commitment to early education continues to fall short.

Governor Charlie Baker’s spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year, while providing new funding for the Department of Children & Families and for K-12 schools, misses the mark when it comes to recognizing early education programs as fundamental toour education system.

Over the past 15 years, state spending on early education and care has dropped by $114 million. At the same time, state spending on K-2 schools has more than kept pace with inflation, and Baker’s budget adds $105 million in new money for schools.

Regrettably, this drop also coincided with a growing body of research that demonstrates that children’s brains develop rapidly from birth to age five.

Studies consistently show that children start learning at birth and that high-quality early education and care programs have a significant impact on all who participate. Disparities in cognition and health can become evident as early as nine months in low-income children compared to their higher-income peers. The achievement gap starts for these children long before they enter kindergarten.

Children who participate in high-quality early education programs have better outcomes in educational attainment and careers. Children from low-income families are less likely to repeat a grade, require remedial services, engage with the criminal justice system, and are more likely to complete high school and graduate from college. In addition, they will pay more in taxes and require less health care spending

The “Put Massachusetts Kids First” coalition is a group of more than two dozen early childhood education and out-of-school programs working to help shape public policy within this crucial segment of the state’s education system. We’ve launched a multi-year campaign to invest in our children through enhanced quality in early education and school-age programs, which includes developing a well-qualified and compensated educator workforce. It is time to align our action with our rhetoric. Our investments should reflect our priorities. A healthy society must prioritize its children.

Early education and school age programs need to ensure that all of their educators and administrators are registered and/or updated in the DEEC Professional Qualifications Registry and meet existing standards. Those are already in place, and they ensure that educators and administrators are held accountable.

A renewed commitment is needed to put our youngest children on the right track. Strengthening early education and care should be an integral part of the Commonwealth’s long-term plan to invest in human capital to support growth and quality goals. It’s up to the Governor and Legislature to make this a priority.

Our next generation of workers, innovators and leaders is crucial to our long-term vitality as a state. If we are to thrive, we must invest in a high quality educator work force and expand access to early education and care in underserved communities.

Wayne Ysaguirre is president and CEO of Nurtury and a member of the Put MA Kids First Coalition