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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Biden’s universal preschool plan a ‘game-changer’ for Mass., but final version could look very different

Members of The Busy Bees, a class for 3-year-olds, play together during their school day at the Boston Nature Center's Pathways to Nature Preschool program in January.
Members of The Busy Bees, a class for 3-year-olds, play together during their school day at the Boston Nature Center's Pathways to Nature Preschool program in January.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The Great Divide is an investigative series that explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to thegreatdivide@globe.com.

President Biden’s proposal for free, high-quality preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds would create powerful change in Massachusetts, one of the nation’s most expensive child care markets, educators and parents said.

In a state where, despite its relative wealth and strong public school system, nearly half of children don’t attend preschool, mostly because they can’t afford it, universal preschool could help reduce the educational inequities that start long before kindergarten, they said.

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“I honestly think it’s a game-changer,” said Amy O’Leary, campaign director of Strategies for Children, an advocacy group. “The research tells us that for families who need more support, we see better outcomes in the short and long-term.”

In an address to Congress last week, Biden said his $1.8 trillion American Families Plan would add four years of free public education — two years of preschool and two years of community college — to the 12 years guaranteed to all children.

“Twelve years is no longer enough today to compete in the 21st century,” Biden said.

If passed, the package, which sets aside $200 billion for universal preschool and $225 billion to make care for children under 3 more affordable, would represent the largest-ever American investment in child care and early education, experts said.

To fund these and other benefits for children, including additional tax credits for families with children, Biden proposed closing tax loopholes, stepping up tax enforcement on the wealthy, and raising tax rates for the richest 1 percent of Americans.

There would be no income cap on the program, Biden administration officials said.

That could be a tough sell politically for Republicans and moderate Democrats, who would prefer a smaller package prioritizing the neediest families, some political observers said.

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“If it were to pass, they’d have to really scale it back and reduce the price tag fairly astronomically,” said Liz Mair, a Republican political consultant. “There is a great deal of discomfort among a lot of voters at the idea of giving rich people benefits.”

But Democrats see universal preschool and child care as top priorities, particularly after the pandemic decimated early-education providers and made it difficult for many parents to work.

“I think the question isn’t ‘Can it pass?’ but rather, ‘How can we not make this investment in families and in our future?’ ” said US Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, assistant speaker of the House of Representatives.

The case for early education is well established: The human brain forms 90 percent of its neural architecture in the first five years of life, and research has shown that access to high-quality pre-K affects not only learning in children’s early years, but also their future academic, behavioral, and job success.

In Boston, though, preschool at private centers can cost $21,000 or more per year, rivaling the cost of public college tuition. Boston Public Schools offers free prekindergarten for 4-year-olds in schools and community centers, though there aren’t enough seats yet to accommodate all children that age. Only a very small number of seats are available for 3-year-olds.

The uneven access to preschool leads to kindergartners showing up at drastically different stages of learning, educators said. Kids who have gone to preschool are often more independent and ready to learn, whereas other students struggle in school, said Alliberthe Elysee-Brown, a kindergarten teacher at the Henry L. Higginson K-2 Elementary School in Roxbury.

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“You do see the benefits when kids are exposed to [preschool],” Elysee-Brown said. “They have certain problem-solving skills and certain social-emotional skills that have developed from just being around other students and other adults.”

Biden’s plan would “level the playing field for the families that can’t afford [preschool],” she said.

Sarah Malk

enson, a Jamaica Plain mother, said her two young children have benefited from attending private preschools in their neighborhood in many ways: They’ve made friends, experienced learning from a teacher, created art, and learned to understand stories. Though she and her husband, a software product manager, have been able to afford the costs, she said, it’s still their second-la

rgest expense after housing.

“We do spend a lot of money on it, but we consider it an invaluable resource,” she said. “If this allows families who previously couldn’t have it to get it, that would be a really big benefit to them.”

Biden’s plan, according to an administration memo, envisions the government subsidizing tuition for children attending preschool in public schools, private day cares, and community centers. The memo says the investment would prioritize low-income families and communities of color.

“Where we’d notice things soonest is in communities where it’s needed the most,” said Nonie Lesaux, who chairs the state’s Board of Early Education and Care and is co-director of Harvard’s Zaentz Early Education Initiative.

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Nationwide, only 20 percent of families who qualify for subsidized care can find a slot; expanding funding would create more seats, Lesaux said. It would also help make early education more affordable to families in the lower and middle-classes, she said, whose current options are “either subsidized or outlandishly expensive, with no in-between.”

In Massachusetts, about a quar

ter of families earning between $30,000 and $125,000 don’t pay for any child care for their 3- and 4-year-olds, and another one-third pay for informal, unlicensed babysitting, usually at a relative’s home where enrichment and learning aren’t subject to quality standards, according to Harvard research.

Many families don’t make enough money to afford tuition but make too much to qualify for Head Start, a federal and state free preschool program for people living below the federal poverty line.

The state offers preschool vouchers, but has a two-year waitlist, and excludes families who are paid in cash or lack other documentation, said Jackie Herrera, who works with low-income families in Waltham and Newton as a coordinator for ParentChild+, a program that aims to fill the void for families with no access to early education through weekly home visits, educational toys, and children’s books.

Wide swaths of families have no access to early-education materials, she said.

“We try to fill in some of the gaps,” Herrera said. “It doesn’t mean it’s anywhere near what a child in preschool would get.”

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Diana Argueda, a Waltham mother who works at McDonald’s, said she and her husband, a cook, together make about $42,000 per year, too much to qualify for Head Start. But they couldn’t come close to affording preschool.

So in recent years she has spent her days in an exhausting routine: waking early to take her son, now 5, to the Waltham Public Library for children’s storytime, sing-alongs, and play groups, then working the night shift at McDonald’s from 4 p.m. to midnight. She also received crucial assistance from ParentChild+.

“It would have been much easier and had many more benefits” if the family had access to preschool, Argueda said in Spanish. “In school, they have a structure, one can have the confidence that their kid is getting everything they need, they can learn many more things than what a mother can teach at home, and I could have had a schedule that allowed me to have more time with my family.”

Her son begins kindergarten in September and she hopes he’ll be prepared. She wishes he could have attended preschool, though.

“It’s really important that everyone has access to preschool education,” Argueda said. “This would give these children the structure of success from a very young age.”


Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.