By Alana Melanson
FITCHBURG -- Early-childhood education is vital to the development and later success of the state's children, and educators and legislators are hoping to make that message loud and clear.
State Sen. Jennifer Flanagan and Rep. Jennifer Benson, along with a handful of local early-childhood educators and parents, toured Busy Bees Preschool Center on Harugari Street on Monday morning in support of that notion.
Flanagan and Benson have co-signed proposed legislation titled "An Act to Improve Quality in Early Education Centers," along with close to 60 other legislators, including Rep. Stephen DiNatale and Sen. Jamie Eldridge.
The legislation would allow the creation of a providers' organization that would include staff of child-care centers that receive state child-care subsidies for at least 10 percent of their attending children.
The Massachusetts Early Childhood Educators Union, or MECEU, describes itself as "a grass-roots campaign of teachers, directors and other center-based staff to form a nontraditional union committed to winning more resources and respect for the nearly 5,000 dedicated and talented professionals teaching in roughly 500 of the most under-resourced centers across the state.
Paul Pezzella, legislative agent for MECEU, said the purpose is not about collective-bargaining rights in the sense of a traditional union, but rather to advocate for centers, teachers and directors when it comes to policymaking, and to require the state to negotiate with the organization on matters of workforce and professional development, training and conditions affecting recruitment and retention.
The legislation seeks to create a formal agreement between the MECEU and the commissioner of early education on child-care standards, and requires that the funds needed to finance the agreement "shall not be diverted from funding for child-care assistance, including line items for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)-Related Child Care, Supportive Child Care, and Low-Income Child Care."
The legislation also aims to increase access to high-quality early-learning programs and close the achievement gap for economically disadvantaged children.
Proponents also hope it will lead to higher retention of staff as they grow in experience, rather than move on to higher realms of education, where they can be paid living wages.
"The evidence is indisputable that the most important part of learning is at this stage," Pezzella said, adding that workers earning wages as low as $8 per hour "are entrusted with trying to do that."
Low wages in early education results in a high turnover rate across the state, he said, leaving little incentive for teachers to stay in the field.
"Early-education centers, such as Busy Bees, truly change children's lives by teaching them the vital skills they need to succeed in school," said Maria Paulino, director of Busy Bees. "It is essential that we continue to invest in their future, although maintaining staff to do so is a constant struggle. Our early educators deserve more than they are paid. They also deserve a voice in early-education policymaking."
Funding is a big problem, however, Flanagan said.
"We know that you're working with these kids, we know that you're the start of their educational experience, and we appreciate the work that you do," she said. "And we're trying just as hard on Beacon Hill to make sure that we can protect these kids as much as we possibly can because we know there's no going back. You're only going to be 3 once."
Flanagan said she saw a marked difference in her own niece after she attended a similar center and began to choose books over Barbie dolls when she got home.
"It's clear that kids who go to quality preschool programs score higher on their third-grade reading MCAS," Benson said. "And when they do that, it's a domino effect. They're more successful throughout their educational experience."
She said the U.S. can learn a great deal from Finland, which decided 40 years ago to invest in early-childhood education and create a "birth to college" educational system.
Having few natural resources and exports, Benson said, the country decided to invest in the brains of its people to become globally competitive, and now has one of the best educational systems in the world, one in which all teachers, whether they teach 2-year-olds or 18-year-olds, are paid and respected at the same level as doctors and lawyers.
"There's something we can learn from here," she said.
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