Will we take a bold stand for our youngest citizens?: Massachusetts’ FY14 Budget

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of working at an organization that served young children experiencing homelessness and their families through early education, family support, advocacy and much more. Like so many, I saw the wonders of early education at work. Toddlers who entered the program developmentally behind caught up and continued to grow. Julie Bloduc

Certain stories of the agency’s early education work left an impression that will always be with me. One toddler entered the program unable to crawl beyond the circumference of a bed, I was told. The shelter space was small and the child’s mother was understandably hesitant to let him stray too far in such an uncertain place after, most likely, experiencing the insecurity and stress of becoming homeless. Slowly, the organization’s talented, dedicated and passionate teachers pulled toys away from the child inch by inch, prompting him to crawl further and further. Soon, there was no stopping him.

The science of biopsychosocial development concretely lays out the importance of high quality learning opportunities in the early years, demonstrating why access to early education for all children – from the most vulnerable to the most privileged, and every single young child that falls in between – must be a societal imperative. The first three years of life are the prime of human development.  Over 90 percent of the brain is constructed and the road map for future social, emotional and physical development takes form through interactive relationships. While there is always opportunity for resilience, research shows that addressing delays in development early increases the chances for improved outcomes. What’s more, it saves in future social costs, yielding an estimated return of 16% . In fact, quality early childhood is one of the few social policy interventions that have proven to really work, in terms of both long-term learning and development outcomes, and economic benefits to society. Imagine the consequences of waiting a few years to work with the child in the story above. It’s those possible answers to that question that truly captures what’s at stake in Massachusetts’ FY14 budget.

Recognizing the dividends reaped from investing in children early, Governor Patrick boldly proposed to increase funding for early education by $131 million in FY14, and $350 million over the next four years.  He also proposed reforms to Chapter 70 school funding, a formula that determines how aid is allocated to school districts, that would encourage more school districts to create early education programs. This funding would be divided among many early education initiatives, such as investments to attract, train and retain early education professionals; implementation of quality improvement efforts; a system to assess children entering kindergarten; family engagement to support reading proficiency by the 3 rd grade; and wrap around family support services in areas with low-preforming schools.

Most significant, however, is the Governor’s proposal to create universal access to early education in the Commonwealth by FY17. The child in the story above is lucky in the sense to have had access to an early education program. However, thousands of preschool aged children in similar circumstances are placed on a waitlist while the most important developmental milestones of their lives pass them by. They fall behind even before taking a step into the door of a kindergarten classroom. Middle class families struggle too. Affordability is a barrier to access for them.  “Luck” should not determine lifelong outcomes, a fact that the Governor’s proposals speak to.

Now, with this proposal in hand, what’s next?

The Governor’s budget, known at House Bill 1, is just one step in the state budget process that lasts through June or even sometimes July. The House Ways and Means Committee (HWM) is currently working on their draft budget proposal, which is traditionally released in mid-April. About a week after its release, the House of Representatives will debate the budget. House members will have the opportunity to introduce budget amendments to add, eliminate or change the HWM’s draft, including those related to appropriations and outside sections. The House’s final version of the budget is then sent to the Senate. The Senate Ways and Means Committee (SWM) releases their draft budget in May, with Senate debate taking place that same month. While the Senate and House typically follow different procedures in finalizing their budgets, Senators still have an opportunity to introduce amendments.  Once the Senate approves their FY14 funding blueprint, both branches appoint conferees to negotiate the difference between the two bills. Typically, by late June, the legislature releases their joint budget proposal, sending it to the Governor to either approve or veto within 10 days.  The legislature can then override his vetoes. Of course, the timeline and elements of the process are always subject to change, but this provides a general overview of the steps ahead.

Within all of these milestones of the budget process, the legislature has a tremendous opportunity to bring about systematic change that could impact the trajectory of so many children, and with them, the future social and economic viability of the Commonwealth. Equally so, however, this is our opportunity.  A hurdle ahead of us is justifying the means and vehicle to pay for the expansion of early education.  Supporters are fortunate to have such compelling answers to that end. As Governor Patrick said in his State of the State address “to those who say we cannot afford this, I challenge you to show me which 4-year-old you think we should not invest in.”  Supporters must contact legislators as well as the chairs of House Ways and Means and Senate Ways and Means to underscore this point.

Julie Bolduc is a graduate student at Boston College Graduate School of Social Work. She previously served as a Massachusetts state lobbyist at Charles Group Consulting, representing nonprofit organizations, associations and groups whose public policy and budget priorities serve the public good. As the Director of Grassroots Advocacy for Horizons for Homeless Children, Julie developed and launched “the Campaign for Young Homeless Children” in 2011. She began her career as an associate at the Dewey Square Group’s Washington DC and Boston offices, managing grassroots campaigns.