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Top education officials in Gov. Charlie Baker's administration said Wednesday that preschool classes were critical to narrowing a stubborn achievement gap in Massachusetts schools, but they cautioned lawmakers that expanding early childhood education too rapidly could sacrifice quality for quantity.
"Most educational deficits and obstacles begin before a child even enters kindergarten," Secretary of Education James Peyser told the Legislature's Education Committee. "We cannot afford to treat early education as an afterthought."
The panel also heard testimony from local officials, parents and teachers on several bills aimed at increasing access to prekindergarten, especially in struggling school districts with large numbers of low-income or immigrant families.
Many advocates have urged the state to move toward a "universal" prekindergarten system and pay to eliminate a waiting list of more than 28,000 children whose families are seeking spots in subsidized child care or early education programs.
"I'm not here to argue that reducing the waiting list doesn't matter, it does," Peyser said, adding: "Our first priority has to be quality."
Thomas Weber, the state's commissioner of Early Education and Care, said Massachusetts "cannot and should not attempt to go universal overnight." He called for benchmarks to measure the success of prekindergarten programs and warned that an overemphasis on teaching 4-year-olds could inadvertently pull resources away from equally important child care services for infants and toddlers.
Baker, a Republican, clashed with Democrats over early education in last year's gubernatorial campaign, when he opposed a $150 million proposal by Democrat Martha Coakley to eliminate the waiting list for state vouchers for prekindergarten programs.
Baker called for targeted investment in early education but argued for a focus on strengthening K-12 public schools.
On Tuesday, the governor touted the receipt of more than $14 million from a federal preschool expansion program that he said would fund more than 800 prekindergarten slots in Holyoke, Boston, Lawrence, Lowell and Springfield.
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera and Rahn Dorsey, an education adviser to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, told the legislative panel Wednesday that they backed legislation to provide state grants for early education, with priority given to chronically underperforming school districts.
Lawrence schools have been under state receivership since 2011.
Rivera could not immediately provide lawmakers with a price tag for offering prekindergarten for all 3- and 4-year olds in the city, but he said the money would be "well spent regardless of what that may be."
Peyser said Massachusetts' early education system was hampered by a lack of clear standards that make it difficult to evaluate the success of programs, and by what he called a "teacher quality problem." The latter, he said, resulted not only from low pay for many preschool instructors, but a shortage of adequate training.
"I don't disagree that many if not most early educators are underpaid, sometimes grossly so," he said. "Nevertheless, the solution to this problem is not simply to increase salaries, but we must invest in improving the skills of the workforce."
Associated Press writer Steve LeBlanc contributed to this report.
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