Gail M. Macdonald: We must unify early education system

Gail M. Macdonald

The Patriot Ledger’s recent series on the state of day care in Massachusetts shed light on this vital yet often misunderstood segment of education.

As a society, we are finally recognizing that which research has shown for a number of years: investing in early childhood education makes sense. Children benefit through improved social, emotional and cognitive growth and communities benefit by avoiding heavier educational costs down the road.

However, recognizing the value of early childhood education is only the first step. Many obstacles remain to establishing universal early childhood education in our state. The first challenge lies in the language: PreK, day-care, nursery school and preschool are all labels for the patchwork of delivery systems we use to provide care and education to our youngest citizens. Just as we have no unified means of offering early childhood education to our state’s preschoolers, we have no unified term that means “the care and education of children 3-5 years of age.”

To add to this confusion, some view these varied terms as interchangeable, while others interpret each term as a distinct approach to early childhood education. I have spent many a long phone call explaining our system – or lack thereof – to new parents and newly immigrated ones. If we are to begin seriously addressing the need for universal early childhood education, we should begin by using the term that most encompasses all the forms this education can take: early childhood education (ECE).

ECE, whether delivered part-time or full-time, in a center, a program or in someone’s home, refers to a setting in which trained educators are engaged in providing a learning environment to children of preschool age.

Your series touched upon the sobering economic realities of our current system. The cost of ECE is covered primarily by the parents themselves, with some centers offering tuition reductions through subsidies such as state grants and donations. However, most ECE programs depend on other types of subsidization – these are often less obvious forms that mask the true cost of providing ECE.

The program I direct, for example, is sponsored by the church that houses us, the First Baptist Church of Wollaston. They give us a below-market rent and pay our utilities. If our program did not have this support, we would have to impose steep tuition increases on our parents just to cover our costs. Some parents would be priced out.

Many smaller, non-profit ECE programs, particularly those located in churches, are similarly dependent on this type of sponsorship. While we are grateful to have it, the future of our programs are contingent on this on-going relationship. We are not financially independent and the tuition parents pay do not fully cover the costs we incur to educate their children.

Another hidden subsidy comes in the form of low teacher salaries. If I were to pay my teachers their true worth in accordance to their level of education, expertise and dedication, I would once again have to impose steep tuition increases. From my frequent conversations with other directors and through published salary surveys, I know this is a widespread reality.

Throughout the state, in programs large and small, teachers are subsidizing the true cost of care. My teachers stay in the job because they love working with children yet it is patently unfair to continue asking them to absorb the cost of providing quality ECE because our state is unwilling to pick up the tab. The push for more stringent criteria for teachers – such as requiring undergraduate degrees – is a positive development.

However, the state must back up such proposals with the financial support necessary to increase teacher salaries.

It is promising that Gov. Deval Patrick has shown a commitment to providing affordable, quality ECE to all the state’s preschoolers. It will be a long road and, like many in our state, riddled with potholes and detours.

Massachusetts is known throughout the world for its world class educational institutions. The campaign to provide ECE for preschool children is another opportunity for our state to show its commitment to the values of “education for all.”

Gail M. Macdonald is director of the Cornerstone Campus Preschool in Quincy.