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Gov. Healey plans to bring universal pre-K to Massachusetts’ Gateway Cities by 2026

Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey.
Charlotte Hysen
Governor's Press Office
Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey.

This week, Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey announced a plan to bring universal pre-K access to the commonwealth’s Gateway Cities.

26 Massachusetts communities are designated as Gateway Cities — midsized urban centers that have languished since post-industrialization and the decline of manufacturing jobs.

Pittsfield, Holyoke, Chicopee, Westfield and Springfield are all Gateway Cities.

Tricia Farley-Bouvier, the Democratic state Representative for Pittsfield, has long stressed the significance of early education in her district.

“It is a is a key factor in addressing poverty, and it is important for economic development, because with better early education, we have a better workforce,” said the representative.

In a recent interview, she emphasized to WAMC how legislators have attempted to address early education access issues in Western Massachusetts.

“The state gave another $60 million for the education rate reserve fund, and that particularly impacts teacher salaries," said Farley-Bouvier. "Importantly, something kind of breaking news now, is that the early education and care board is about to raise the rates, and in doing so, correct something that has happened over the last few years where Boston rates were going up so much faster than Western Mass. And through a series of efforts with my colleagues across the state, we are bringing equity to that. As an example, Josh, infant care next year is going to go from $65.71 a day to $97.18 a day. And this is what our early educators have been saying, that in particular, they cannot afford to do infant care anymore, and that turns into a real problem for parents who are trying to get back to work.”

In her State of the Commonwealth address Wednesday, Healey established early education as one of her top priorities for 2024.

“It's our ‘Gateway to Pre-K’ plan to save families money and transform early education in our state," said the governor. "First, we'll direct help to thousands of families by expanding eligibility for state financial assistance. In this program, childcare costs are capped based on what you can afford. Next, we'll set a new goal for early education in Massachusetts. Let's have universal pre-K for every four-year-old in Massachusetts. Let's do it! To get there, I want by 2026 a guaranteed access to high-quality, affordable preschool for every four-year-old in all 26 of our Gateway Cities. That means a seat in a classroom for over 23,000 children.”

Healey’s “Gateway to Pre-K" project calls for every Gateway City to have universal access to pre-K by the end of 2026.

“We'll be doing this through our Commonwealth Preschool Partnership Initiative, which creates partnerships between our public schools and local community-based programs, and the goal is really to ensure that all four-year-olds have access to high quality preschool and have the opportunity to enter school ready to succeed," said Early Education and Care Commissioner Amy Kershaw. “We're also going to be supporting our working families by increasing access to childcare financial assistance, both increasing the eligibility so families at higher income levels will now be eligible for that program, and significant new investments will also allow us to serve up to 4,000 new families.”

The commissioner says the Healey administration will also enshrine a program originally federally funded during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic into the state budget.

“The administration is also going to be proposing continuing the Commonwealth Cares for Children, or the C3 grant program, which has been an absolute game changer, providing important financial stability to early education and care programs, allowing them to not just stay open, but also make investments in their staff and other quality initiatives,” Kershaw explained.

The fourth and final component of the plan comes from Healey herself.

“This is going to be an executive order that was signed by the governor to bring together economic development, labor and workforce development, education, housing, health and human services, the full force of our government agencies across the state to focus on making high quality early childhood education and childcare accessible for all families," said Kershaw. "So, a whole government approach to childcare through an executive order to bring cross-agency work together.”

Kershaw says that as the Healey administration works to roll out universal pre-K across Massachusetts, Gateway Cities have been singled out as the starting place for the effort.

“We know that early childhood education is essential for children's lifelong success, and for them to enter school ready to succeed," the commissioner told WAMC. "We also know that access to affordable high-quality childcare is critical for families to be able to work and pursue their own economic mobility goals. So, this proposal really embraces those dually important goals for families and for children- Making sure children have access to early childhood education that prepares them for school and life success, and affordable accessible childcare for their parents, so that they're able to go to work or return to work or participate in an education or training program.”

She says early education is the ultimate equity intervention for Massachusetts families.

“It both supports young children, particularly those who may have been from marginalized communities, to level the educational playing field before they get to school, and it also intervenes to help their families work or return to work or pursue their economic mobility goals,” Kershaw said.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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