Massachusetts has long prided itself on its high educational standards — a pride that is often but not always justified. In the case of critically important preschool education, the Bay State could learn a few lessons from Alabama, as counterintuitive as that might sound.
In a recent Boston Globe story, the pre-K failings of Massachusetts were cast in sharp relief by the successes of Alabama over the past decade. Most notably, Alabama’s public pre-K program is free to all students. In Massachusetts, where public preschool programs are scarce and seats hard to find, the cost for one year of private preschool is just under $15,000, the second highest in the nation. This is unaffordable for low-income families and many middle-class families, putting their children at a disadvantage to those of wealthier parents entering kindergarten.
The southern states generally have not been standard-bearers in American education. But in preschool education, Alabama meets all 10 benchmark standards, primarily involving class size and the educational level of teachers, established by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. Massachusetts meets five. Educational experts attest that good pre-K programs lead to better graduation rates in high school and college, less criminal activity and better salaries. Alabama education officials say their program has reduced absenteeism and led to better grades at least through middle school.
To a large extent, educational improvement is determined by money invested. The Globe reports that Alabama, a state with a 38 percent lower median income than Massachusetts, spends $6,000 per pre-K student, an investment that has climbed steadily in recent years. While Massachusetts has increased education funding in many areas, it has unaccountably reduced spending from $8,100 per student in pre-K in 2002 to just $2,200 per student as of 2020, according to The Globe.
Massachusetts parents with 4-year-olds are in a terrible bind. Those who can’t afford the high cost of private prekindergarten might still make too much money to qualify for subsidies to public pre-K programs. This dovetails with the vexing problem of child care costs and availability, the subject of a recent Eagle editorial. Working-class parents bearing the crushing weight of a public preschool program might be unable to afford child care for their other children, forcing them to leave jobs to stay home and take care of them, increasing their current financial hardship while reducing their long-term economic security.
In response to a question from The Globe, a spokesperson for Massachusetts’ early education commissioner, Samantha Aigner-Treworgy, pointed out that prekindergarten grants are available through the Commonwealth Preschool Partnership Initiative. Grants, however, don’t reach every community and every student. Alabama’s pre-K program is designed to do both.
Massachusetts’ pre-K program needs a shot in the arm and that entails money. President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan includes pre-K funding, but the plan is dead in the stagnant waters of the U.S. Senate. It is up to Massachusetts and its communities.
Alabama’s resurgent pre-K program began its ascent 10 years ago with the creation of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance. It was a collaborative effort among pro-education lawmakers and a business community that realized a strong educational system provides a prepared workforce. In exchange for increased state funding, communities had to agree to contribute 25 percent of the overall cost. Some tuition is charged to families that exceed a certain income level.
A year ago, the Massachusetts Business Coalition for Early Childhood Education was created to study the state’s pre-K program and offer improvements. A report is due in March from a legislative commission on early childhood education. Solutions will have to be ambitious and they will have to include overdue funding increases to compensate for 20 years of cuts.
Investing in preschool pays dividends in the long run. Going forward, Massachusetts should look to Alabama’s pre-K program as a model.