, Salem, MA

April 12, 2014

Column: Why Salem should push for universal preschool

Nathan Proctor and Arthur MacEwan
The Salem News

---- — There is no shortage of reasons to give every child a strong start by investing in early learning.

High-quality preschool improves student performance and reduces the academic achievement gap as those kids progress through school. It reduces the need for special aid and other expensive public services as the child grows — so much so, that the benefits can outweigh the costs. Children who go through preschool are more likely to go to college and enter the labor force as more productive workers, another benefit to the economy.

But let’s add one more reason: The boost that universal preschool could bring to the local economy in a city like Salem, and what it would mean to an average family.

In the 2008 to 2012 period, the average household in Salem earned $56,580 — above the national average of $53,046. But after you take out taxes and add in the average costs (for Massachusetts, or for Salem specifically where available) for health care ($4,465), rent/mortgage ($15,252), food ($9,932), heat and electricity ($2,258), car/gas ($2,033), clothing, personal care and household supplies ($6,000), you are down to $5,563.

That’s $5,563 to pay for preschool and everything else.

Here’s the rub: In Massachusetts, preschool costs an average of $11,669 for a 4-year-old. So ... we’re $6,106 in the red before even considering paying for student loans, vacations, holiday events and various other things (we bet your family would appreciate gifts on their birthdays).

This is probably why 27.8 percent of the 1,268 preschool-aged children in Salem aren’t in preschool, and why many parents stay home. In Massachusetts, some 60,000 preschool-aged kids are not in any kind of preschool program.

As one mother recently told us: “I thought I was on top of things. We were saving for college before I even got pregnant. But no one warned me that we would need to save for preschool!”

Early childhood puts a very real squeeze on middle-income families — as well as low-income families — and has driven many into debt. Not only would it help more kids thrive, if we extended preschool to all in Salem, the average family with preschool-aged children would go from a budget of -$6,106, to +$5,563. Many parents would go back to work. All told, it would likely add millions of dollars into the local economy.

To most (us included), the reason we should invest in public preschool is obvious: It helps every child succeed. It not only raises achievement but saves us more money than it costs. But let’s not overlook the impact this would have for young families’ budgets and our local economy. Perhaps we should ask, “Why wouldn’t Salem push for preschool?”

As state lawmakers hammer out Massachusetts budget — the draft of which arrived this week — we think they should invest in preschool and dramatically expand public programs.

Nathan Proctor is state director of Massachusetts Fair Share, a statewide nonprofit advocacy group. Arthur MacEwan is professor emeritus of economics and senior research fellow in the Center for Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston.