The Case for Universal Pre-K in Cambridge


Ada Carter

High-quality early education has been shown to have lasting positive effects on children.

David Spitz, Sam Kravitz, and Cameron Tracy

Cambridge is one of the leading cities in America when it comes to education, affordable housing, participatory budgeting, and other equitable policies. However, we still lack universal pre-kindergarten (pre-K), which would expand pre-kindergarten programs to all eligible residents. Early childhood education is a critical part of a child’s development. In countless studies, people who received a high-quality early childhood education have had improved grades, cognitive skills later in life, and socio-emotional skills. These people are also less likely to commit crimes and more likely to have a successful future. Currently, Cambridge has a mixed-delivery system for Pre-K—a partnership between public and private daycare centers—but our system cannot provide enough seats for everyone who wants it. Cambridge needs to expand its mixed delivery system because universal pre-K provides important societal and economic benefits for everyone.

Numerous studies have shown that universal pre-K can shrink the racial achievement gap. According to the National Institute of Early Education Research, universal pre-K can completely close the black-white and Hispanic-white reading gap before kindergarten. Unfortunately, access to high-quality early childhood education remains remarkably low and unequal nationwide, including in Cambridge. Specifically, minority and low-income children are less likely to be able to receive a high-quality early childhood education. These children start their education far behind their more privileged peers, creating the achievement gaps we see today. At CRLS, the effect of these differences in access to universal pre-K can be observed simply by noting the concentration of white and Asian students in AP classes and the high proportion of black and Hispanic students in standard.

The most practical model of universal pre-K for Cambridge is a more comprehensive mixed-delivery system, in which the city works with local private daycare centers to provide affordable childcare. Like Cambridge, Somerville has a mixed-delivery system for pre-K. Their system has created incredible results since it began in 2014. Their students have made great improvements in the Kindergarten Entry Skills Inventory (KESI), particularly in math and literacy. A different pre-K model that the Cambridge City Council has considered is to increase the number of seats in existing public schools, allowing every child aged four before September 1st to be guaranteed a spot in a pre-K classroom in a public school. Such a system is believed to cost up to $20 million each year, which is highly inefficient. Instead, Cambridge should build upon its current mixed-delivery system to pursue universal pre-K.

Universal pre-K can shrink the racial achievement gap.”

A popular argument against universal pre-K is that many of the new spots will go unfilled because of cultural barriers that discourage parents from sending their children to these daycares. Some parents feel that it is their duty to raise their child at home. Lisa Kuh, the Director of Early Education in Somerville, explains these obstacles: “I think we still fall back on the fact that we don’t have a mindset yet that early childhood education is a public right. Taking care of children has been the work of small private babysitters, parents—mostly women.” While cultural values about parenthood should be respected, the economic and societal benefits explained earlier are undeniably important. Sending children to pre-K will also allow parents formerly consumed with childcare to re-enter the workforce.

We, and many students of CRLS, are tired of weak strides towards racial equity. If Cambridge is serious about closing the achievement gap, as many of its politicians and leaders suggest, implementing a universal mixed-delivery system should be a top priority. Although expanding the current system is a short-term financial burden, it will create a more equitable, educated, and prosperous Cambridge in the long-run.

This piece also appears in our January 2020 print edition.