Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick unveiled his 2.9 percent budget increase last Wednesday, which sets the state’s total budget at $36.4 billion. This plan includes increased spending on the state’s education system — a $100 million increase, to be exact.
Massachusetts’ K-12 students will reap the benefits of the budget increase, receiving $25 million, with an additional $15 million toward early education programs. Based on this spending plan, you could say Patrick is adamant on closing the gaping achievement gap between minority and white students in Massachusetts.
Funneling tax dollars into education is a very strategic political move. Increasing state funding for education is a hard point for taxpayers and opponents to disagree with. On the other hand, if Patrick decided to allocate that additional $15 million into the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority or state health care programs, the city’s naysayers would erupt. But when it comes to funding education, nobody wants to be that guy who denies an underprivileged 3-year-old the means to learn that “elemeno” is not the letter that comes before “p” in the alphabet.
No one can deny the magnitude of difference education makes in a society. According to a 2009 longitudinal study by the National Center for Education Statistics, only 45 percent of 4-year-olds who live in poverty were proficient basic arithmetic, compared to 72 percent of their peers living above the poverty line.
Aside from teaching children basic academics, pre-school is often the first time kids leave Elmo’s World to learn how to respect people other than their parents. And like most lessons in life, one cannot learn respect and love without doing it — no matter how many times they babble Barney’s, “I Love You” song towards the TV screen.
In his State of the Union Address on Tuesday night, Obama said this year his administration will invest in new partnerships with states and communities for early childhood education. In his address in 2013, he similarly claimed childhood education is the key to absolving the world of its greatest issues such as pregnancy and violent crime. Obviously we are not teaching toddlers how to put on a condom or how to avoid joining a gang, but early education lays a foundation for reasoning, stability and tolerance during a child’s most impressionable age.
The extra millions Patrick plans to channel into childhood education will make this basic right accessible to more students, which in of itself is a huge feat. However, although putting millions of extra dollars into the early education system will standardize the availability of education in Massachusetts, it still will not ensure each student is receiving the same quality of instruction. Just as preschool sets the foundation for future achievement, it is precisely where the wide achievement gap in our society begins.
But, in reality, the key to early education is that it is available and adequate, and this is one of very few instances where quantity can be prioritized over quality. Therefore, such additional funds do not need to be put towards improving the quality of these programs. If Patrick took that excess $15 million and funneled it into our MBTA, we would have happier commuters and our youth will still learn how to color between the lines before they enter the real world 20 years down the road.
However, that is not to say money should be taken out of the early education system. This additional money could rather be allocated to existing programs such as Nurse-Family Partnerships and the Baby College in the Harlem Children’s Zone, which teach good parenting skills — the backbone behind a stable childhood. Or this money could be put toward programs that teach sustainable social and emotional development strategies to children.
Unfortunately there is no right answer as to what the best technique to educating a child is, as every child is different. The Massachusetts children receiving the $15 million dollar increase in their education program are serving as guinea pigs for how effective this increased funding to early childhood programs really is.
And if it doesn’t make a substantial difference, prepare for the backlash from angry parents when the government tries to take this money away from this program.