Our Opinion: A welcome boost for childhood education in state

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Early childhood education is of critical importance because it sets the stage for educational success in the future, but funding for it in Massachusetts hasn't reflected this importance. That changed significantly Wednesday with a welcome and unexpected influx of state cash that should pay quick dividends.

Governor Charlie Baker announced that he would devote $28 million for rate increases for day care centers that serve low-income children, with the funds targeted to provide pay increases for grievously underpaid teachers. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Education told The Boston Globe that the money can be attributed to the installation of a new computer system that led to tighter controls over billing and provided other efficiencies. The obvious implication was that the money was wasted before, but nevertheless the essentially "found money" means that early childhood education can be advanced without having to raise funds through the budget process or make cuts elsewhere. The funding boost is the largest in more than a decade for early childhood education in Massachusetts and it cannot be a one-time infusion followed by funding cuts in the next budget.

State educational and political leaders have increasingly emphasized the importance of education in its early stages (birth to age 5) based on a succession of studies that testify to that importance. The Pittsfield Promise early reading initiative created five years ago was based on the research-backed premise that if children do not learn to read well by third grade they will have difficulty catching up and their educational progress will suffer as they move forward. Low-income students whose parents may both work multiple jobs and do not have sufficient time to read with their children will suffer disproportionately.

The salaries of preschool teachers working in subsidized day care hasn't reflected this importance. The average annual salary of $26,400 will be increased by $1,500 a year, which still translates to an hourly rate of about $13. While wages stagnated, the state imposed tougher regulations on day care centers and demanded more of teachers, who are expected to have bachelor's degrees. The pay increase does recognize the importance of these teachers, the vast majority of whom are women, and may persuade them to remain in the day care centers rather than seek higher-paying teaching jobs elsewhere or leave the profession entirely.

Advocates of early childhood education have been frustrated with the governor, who until Tuesday had largely resisted overtures to increase funding. The ball has been carried in the Legislature, with House Speaker Robert DeLeo calling at a press conference in February where he was flanked by business leaders for more funding for an early education system he described as "in crisis." The speaker last year asked the business community to weigh in on the issue and it followed up with a report that not only highlighted the low teacher salaries but a high turnover rate among staff that left many classrooms empty. Business leaders throughout the state, including the Berkshires, have for years spoken of the difficulty in finding qualified workers to fill good-paying jobs. These jobs are generally specialized, but students will have difficulty learning specific, technology-based skills if they don't have the solid fundamental education that begins in childhood.

With an estimated 14,000 families on waiting lists for spots in low-income day care centers, the crisis Speaker DeLeo spoke of continues. The funding announced by the governor will pay real dividends and represents an acknowledgment that the state is aware of the importance of child education and the crisis facing it, but it is at root a down payment on what must be a greater, long-term investment by the state.

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