Whatever Happened to Universal Pre-K in Boston?

Five years after Marty Walsh ran on a promise to reform the system, pre-K in Boston is still far from “universal.” But what does that word actually mean?

Don’t miss the rest of our 2018 schools feature: The Ultimate Guide to Boston Preschools.

Marty Walsh speaks at a lecturn

Photo via Mayor’s Office/Don Harney

Five years after Marty Walsh ran on a promise to reform the system, pre-K in Boston is still far from “universal.” But what does that word actually mean? Well, believe it or not, it doesn’t necessarily mean more pre-K. In fact, when you tally up Boston’s public school classrooms, charters, parochials, and community-based programs, plus federal Head Start, there has been more than enough free or subsidized pre-K to go around for Boston’s 6,000 four-year-olds since Walsh first set foot in City Hall. It’s just that not all of it was created equal. “Most of the country wants to get universal access,” says Rahn Dorsey, the city’s chief of education, “but access without quality doesn’t close the achievement gap.”

So the race has been on to get all the less-than-stellar options scattered throughout Boston up to rigorous new standards, and find enough funding to pay for it all. By the city’s definition, we won’t actually have universal pre-K until those classrooms have what all classrooms should: college-educated teachers earning living wages, real lesson plans, and professional development. “It’s not just one easy fix to say, ‘Okay. Bingo. We’ve got the seats. We’re ready to go,’” says Jeri Robinson, cochair of Walsh’s Universal Pre-K Advisory Committee. Right now, about 1,500 of Boston’s preschool seats don’t make the grade.

Still, there has been some progress toward the mayor’s goal. BPS, which currently has space for about half of Boston’s four-year-olds in its free K1 program, will add 136 new seats this school year, and by next fall Walsh’s team estimates there will be nearly 1,000 more students in “quality” pre-K than when voters sent him to City Hall. At the same time, the city is offering more than 250 low-income students free preschool overseen by BPS, but located off-site at community spaces such as the Roxbury YMCA, through federal Preschool Expansion Grants. The program is designed to be the model for more community-school partnerships in the city.

So why haven’t we been able to get to a truly “universal” system? Unlike the Big Apple—which rapidly developed a free pre-K program for all city kids with a $300 million infusion of upstate money—lawmakers here can never seem to find enough funding. Walsh has pushed a controversial bill that would give Boston access to $16.5 million a year in surplus money from the state Convention Center Fund; so far, though, it’s stalled on Beacon Hill. On the campaign trail, Walsh once said he’d sell City Hall if that’s what it took to get universal pre-K. Until he makes good, consider this assignment incomplete.