STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

QUINCY — Martha Coakley crouched down to check in with several pre-schoolers playing at a small wooden table with a plate of plastic vegetables and a hamburger. Gov. Deval Patrick joined another group of children nearby in a game of alphabet Bingo.

The governor and the woman running to succeed the two-term Democrat visited the Wahlberg Head Start Early Learning Center in Quincy Monday morning to highlight Coakley’s plan to invest in early education. In fact, everywhere Coakley travels these days the Democratic candidate for governor seems to go out of her way to drive home for voters her focus on expanding access and opportunities for the state’s youngest learners.

Coakley’s campaign touts her desire to provide universal early education, a broad category of services and care, and more specifically she promises to deliver on “universal pre-kindergarten” in Massachusetts, while contrasting her position with that of her Republican rival Charlie Baker.

“When I am Governor, we will provide universal pre-kindergarten to all children in Massachusetts,” Coakley said during her primary night victory speech at the Fairmont Copley Hotel.

But Coakley’s plan would not necessarily make assistance for pre-kindergarten available to all pre-school aged children in Massachusetts.

Strategies for Children estimates that more than 60 percent of the roughly 240,000 children aged three to five are enrolled in a formal pre-school program in Massachusetts, only 27 percent of which are receiving some kind of public support.

Coakley’s proposal, outlined in December and fleshed out last week, would eliminate the list of income-eligible families waiting for vouchers to help send their children to pre-school. Coakley has called for investing $150 million in new funding annually into the early education voucher program by the end of her first term as governor.

So would Coakley’s plan really achieve universal pre-kindergarten in Massachusetts?

“I would say no,” said Amy O’Leary, the Early Education for All campaign director at Strategies for Children. “I would say it’s a step in the right direction. We need to get kids off the waitlist and into programs. It’s the right way to go, but a universal ask would be very different.”

While the rhetoric may be “confusing,” O’Leary said she believes Coakley’s comments and plan for early education are “genuine.”

Baker has talked far less about early education, but says that he supports expansion in targeted school districts, particularly in Gateway Cities, where he thinks it can make the biggest difference. In that respect, Baker and his campaign say the Republican nominee’s position on early education is not that different from Coakley’s.

“I’ve said all along since the beginning of the race that I’m all for targeted pre-K and I am kind of shocked and astonished by the way people choose to define universal pre-K, but that’s kind of the subject for another day,” Baker said during a recent press conference where he was discussing his plan to improve the economy.

Baker said studies done by both the Obama administration and the Brookings Institute have shown that the impact of early education is diminished if the kids move on to underperforming elementary schools. The statewide MCAS scores released last week showed that third graders across Massachusetts continue to struggle in reading with 43 percent not testing at a proficient level, unchanged from a year ago.

“The thing you need to make sure you do with respect to universal pre-K is you got to make sure kids that come out of universal pre-K go into elementary schools where they are going to continue to receive the kind of education they need so that they don’t lose the benefit and the value of the investment and the benefit provided by universal pre-k,” he said.

Independents Jeff McCormick and Evan Falchuk have also expressed general support for investing in early education.

The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center in April estimated that over 105,000 three- and four-year-olds in Massachusetts were either not enrolled in pre-kindergarten or their families were paying full private tuition, without any public assistance. The center estimated the cost of expanding the public school system to reach all three- and four-year-olds in Massachusetts at $1.48 billion.

Republican Party Chair Kirsten Hughes, citing the center’s report, labeled Coakley’s pledge “just another empty promise from a career politician.” Coakley’s campaign says the $1.48 billion estimate represents the most expensive route and is not what she’s proposing.

Coakley on Monday said her plan is about “starting now” with cutting down the 17,000-child wait-list and focusing on children in Gateway Cities, where districts are educating higher populations of low-income students and children who speak limited English.

“That is the goal, obviously,” she said of universal pre-kindergarten. “We want the best for our kids from cradle through all of their education. But this is a great place to start. It was the plan we released, we released a dollar figure attached with it. And this is where we start. We’ve seen the success of it.”

As of August, the Department of Early Education and Care listed 27,593 children on its waitlist for a variety of out-of-school programming, including 11,425 school-aged children looking for placement in after- or before-school programs, 3,940 infants, 5,521 toddlers and 6,707 pre-school aged children. Coakley’s plan would address the infant-to-pre-school population waiting for placement in “early childhood programs.”

Patrick and the Legislature added $24 million to this year’s budget to move 1,700 children off the wait list and administration officials estimate 5,000 kids have been moved off the wait list over two years.

In a sign of what Coakley may face should she become governor, Patrick’s own attempts to go further hit a wall on Beacon Hill where the appetite to raise taxes or find others ways to pay for a broader early education expansion was lacking.

In 2013, Patrick proposed significant new spending as part his $1.9 billion package of tax hikes to eliminate wait lists for infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers, and make Chapter 70 funding available for the first time to districts for pre-school for four-year-olds. The focus on early education, higher education and Chapter 70 funding got overshadowed during debate on the governor’s larger spending request for transportation, and the Legislature ultimately approved a smaller tax package aimed mainly at maintaining infrastructure.

Coakley is not proposing to raise taxes to pay for her early education initiative, suggesting the cost can be absorbed through annual growth in tax collections within the state budget.

Coakley and Patrick were joined in Quincy on Monday by Rep. Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat and the House majority leader, and John Walsh, the former state Democratic Party chair who now heads up Patrick’s political action committee.

The learning center, housed inside a former parochial school behind St. Joseph’s Church in Quincy Point, serves 191 children. It also serves infants and toddlers who are part of a home-based program. Patrick noted that of the 17,000 children on a waiting list for early education, 200 are on a wait-list for the Quincy learning center.

“It has made a difference in the lives of these children and their families, and it will make a difference that this remains a priority and we will get to universal pre-k in a Coakley administration,” Patrick told reporters after the tour.

Notwithstanding the details of candidate plans for early education, advocates and teachers have welcomed the attention during this year’s campaign for governor.

“We’re thrilled that it’s been a focus the last couple of weeks, at least,” said Beth Ann Strollo, the executive director of Quincy Community Action Programs, a nonprofit which oversees the Head Start program and services Quincy, Weymouth, Braintree, Milton and Hull.

Massachusetts relies on a mixed-delivery system to provide early education, combining public school offerings with community-based organizations funded through federal Head Start grants, Department of Early Education and Care vouchers and parent-paid fees.

O’Leary said the Early Education for All campaign is focused on creating a statewide policy that’s flexible enough to work at the local level with a mixed network of providers.

“We think of K-12 as a public good that’s publicly financed. We don’t think that way about early education,” she said. “We would never expect every single kid who’s pre-school aged to be enrolled in a program. I would say universally pre-K is about any family who wants it will be able to have it and it would be a high quality program.”

Georgia and Oklahoma, according to O’Leary, are often cited as models for pre-kindergarten education, with Georgia directing lottery funds to support pre-school with no income limitations on receiving assistance. Oklahoma provides additional state funding to school districts that enroll four-year-olds, and allows districts to partner with Head Start and community-based organizations to deliver services.

Still, even in those states the success of the program depends on the availability of funding, and each system has had mixed results as students move into elementary school.

“Most of the funding for early education and care is the federal funding connected to a parent’s work status,” O’Leary said. “Ultimately, we would hope to get more stable and consistent funding.”

While Patrick has succeeded in boosting funding in recent years for early education, Mariano said the Legislature’s inability to fully erase the waiting list is not an indicator of support for the program.

“It wasn’t because of a lack of understanding of the importance of early childhood. I think there were other priorities,” he said. “I think there were some issues, some questions that we had around the whole early childhood program and I think we were waiting for some answers, and I think the governor’s been forthcoming in helping us get those answers, and I look forward to a recommitment the next budget season. Depending of course on how the economy goes.”

Patrick said the Legislature has “stepped up twice” and helped reduce the waiting list. “The question is are we going to commit as a Commonwealth to reducing it to zero and that’s what Martha Coakley is about,” Patrick said.