Can Biden’s Plan Help Amherst Expand Preschool Options?

Maeve Cunningham in 2013 at The Living Room, a family-run preschool in North Amherst (now closed). Photo: Toni Cunningham

A major stumbling block to expanding preschool in Amherst may be removed if a proposal for universal preschool is passed by Congress. President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan proposes funding for “universal access to high-quality, free Pre-K for 3- and 4- year-olds.” According to a report by Kristen Hayes Consulting published on June 10, 2021, congressional support for universal preschool is high and Hayes expects that it will – in one form or another – be passed, with implications for Massachusetts. (See report here from page 70.)

Of the estimated 796 children ages 0 – 5 in Amherst, Hayes reported that licensed care is available for just 40%. “That’s not good,” said Superintendent Michael Morris at a June 14 Amherst School Committee meeting where he presented Hayes’ work. Community demographics in the report show that Amherst’s poverty rate for children under 5 years is 19.1%, much higher than the state rate of 14.4%, and about one quarter of families with children 0 – 17 years are living below the poverty line.

With the vast majority of children living in households with working parents, demand is high for full-time childcare. According to Hayes, the lack of licensed care, coupled with the high cost of living in Amherst, is a major driver for the need for expansion of early education. Although expansion of services for 3-4 year olds was the focus of the report, Hayes reported that child care slots for children from birth to 3 years remains the single biggest need in the community. (see this Indy article on Hayes’ first report from December 2019).

If universal preschool is passed and funds are awarded to Massachusetts, Hayes wrote that the Amherst school district could opt to pursue such funds in partnership with a local provider (such as Head Start) or on its own. Morris characterized it as “a pretty significant shift” to what the district currently offers, possibly delivering preschool in a mix of settings including public schools, in-home preschools, and community-based programs. It could be analogous to after-school programs, Morris said, whereby the district provides the space and overhead and the provider staffs and manages the program. Morris acknowledged that any expansion of preschool under the American Families Plan would have to offer longer days than the district’s current part-day program, to meet the federal government’s definition of “high quality.” 

According to Hayes, Head Start has sufficient capacity to serve the majority of children 3-4 years old who are low income in Amherst. It is what Hayes termed “the gap” — those families who are not income-eligible for Head Start, are not able to access one of the limited district-funded slots, and who cannot afford private preschool — that would be best served by federally-funded universal preschool.

Funding is not the only stumbling block, however. As reported in The Indy last week, space is already in short supply at Crocker Farm where the district’s preschool will occupy six of 25 classrooms this fall, reducing the space available for the K-6 population.

Hayes’ report included three recommendations for further action:

1) Reach out to private preschool providers this fall to get a sense of their current enrollment, and survey community partners and parents to better understand the early learning needs of the community. 

2) Evaluate the district’s preschool program to understand what investment may be needed to meet “high quality” standards, using Head Start requirements as the baseline.

3) Explore where to locate preschool classrooms.

Hayes suggested preschool could be located at multiple elementary schools, or located in one as it is now, or in a single early education space at a different location. Morris mentioned the current elementary school building project and how it may result in a vacated school building, implying that preschool could potentially be housed there.

For committee member Peter Demling, the core mission of the district’s preschool — providing services for high-needs children from 3 years of age — as well as the district’s limited funding, led him to temper expectations. “If we had a gleaming new building tomorrow, we wouldn’t necessarily be able to expand preschool. You still need to staff it.” Demling said. “Unless the budget is greatly expanded, we can’t expand preschool.”

With respect to the Biden plan, Demling said, “I appreciate any expansion tied to this federal proposal, but we’re a long way from those dollars getting to our district.”

Committee member Kerry Spitzer’s personal experience, though, led her to want to take a more active advocacy role. “As a parent of a 2- and 4- year old, I spend a lot of time thinking about accessing child care. Supply does not meet current demand,” she said. “The children we’re talking about providing care for will come to our district. I would take a stronger stance and advocate for the expansion.”  Regarding Hayes’ recommendation to reach out to providers, Morris said, “that’s a step we can certainly do in the fall.”

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