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Romney vetoes universal prekindergarten in state

Governor Mitt Romney vetoed a bill yesterday that would require the state to develop prekindergarten education programs for every Massachusetts child age 2 to 4, saying the proposal was too costly and unproven.

The bill, which unanimously passed both legislative houses, would create school programs for all children beginning at age 2 until kindergarten. Some education specialists believe such early classroom programs pave the way for future academic success. But Romney said he wanted to wait until the results from an ongoing $4.6 million prekindergarten pilot program in Massachusetts, which concludes in February of 2007.

``Before we create an expensive new burden on Massachusetts taxpayers, one that could lead to future tax increases, we ought to await the results of the pilot program, particularly as it relates to the cost of a large scale expansion," he said in a statement.

Under the bill, state education officials would have to make prekindergarten universal, much like K-though-12 education. They could combine programs run by local school districts with Head Start early education programs and programs offered by licensed child-care centers to create a statewide network. The bill allows for the prekindergarten programs to first be established in low-performing school districts, based on MCAS scores.

Romney said the costs of such an expansive program would be considerable.

``This bill will have significant long-term fiscal impact," he said in the statement. ``It's another expensive entitlement which by some estimates will cost taxpayers upwards of $1 billion a year. By passing this bill, the Legislature is laying the groundwork for future tax increases."

The Legislature finished its session earlier this week, with lawmakers not scheduled to return until January, after the fall elections. However, they have the option, rarely used, of calling a special session to deal with unfinished legislative business, including overriding Romney's prekindergarten veto. In the waning days of the legislative session this week, lawmakers overrode several Romney vetoes.

Speaker of the House Salvatore F. DiMasi and Senate President Robert E. Travaglini are in discussions to recall the Legislature, according to aides. Romney repeatedly called on them to do so this week.

The prekindergarten bill's chief sponsor, State Representative Patricia Haddad, a Somerset Democrat and cochairwoman of the Joint Committee on Education, said considerable evidence backed the effectiveness of prekindergarten, contrary to Romney's assertion that the prekindergarten scheme passed by lawmakers was unproven.

``There is research upon research upon research saying that quality preschool does work. There are so many states doing it. There are several governors running on this," she said, noting that California Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had budgeted $100 million for prekindergarten in June. ``I'm very disappointed and feel this really shows [Romney's] lack of vision."

Prekindergarten remains controversial among education specialists. Preschool-educated pupils progressed faster in literacy, math skills, and vocabulary compared to kids not in such programs, according to a December 2005 Rutgers study of five state-funded prekindergarten pilot programs. But other researchers have found that the benefits of programs like Head Start, which educates 3- and 4-year-olds, have little impact on long-term school performance.

Michael Levenson of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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