BOSTON (STATE HOUSE) – Early education has emerged in 2015 as a more frequent talking point among those pushing government investments and a potential wedge issue between Beacon Hill Democrats and Republican Gov. Charlie Baker.

As annual budget deliberations shift to the Senate this week, backers of bigger investments say poll results they commissioned show that voters agree that early education should be a bigger priority within the roughly $38.1 billion budget that’s being assembled this spring.

The poll of 605 Massachusetts voters, conducted March 17 through March 22 by Anderson Robbins Research, found 67 percent favored investments to expand access to pre-kindergarten services. Support for expanded early education was even stronger among women and Latino voters.

Early education advocates estimate that about 30 percent of the state’s 225,000 pre-school age residents are not enrolled in early education programs. The latest legislative push in early education has been to target expanded access to three and four-year-olds who live in communities with underperforming school districts.

Like environmental programs, early education has traditionally polled well over the years, but that support from voters has not always translated into significant increases in government spending.

Baker and the Massachusetts House have each signed off on budget proposals that aim to hold the overall increase in state spending next year to less than 3 percent. Even at the higher rates of growth in state spending of recent years, early education has taken a backseat to investments in K-12 education as well as large increases in state spending for health insurance, pensions and debt service.

Asked which should be a higher priority for government, prioritizing education funding or holding the line on taxes and spending, 63 percent of respondents said prioritizing education and 34 percent said holding the line on taxes and spending. While they differ in their approach to funding early education, Baker and House leaders have in recent weeks both pitched fiscal discipline and resistance to new or higher taxes as key pillars of their approach to budgeting this year.

The Pre-K for MA campaign, a coalition led by Strategies for Children and Stand for Children, and others backing a stronger commitment to early education say policymakers must respond to test scores that show more than 40 percent of the state’s third graders are unable to read proficiently, including 61 percent of low-income third graders. They are urging the Legislature to give consideration to studies and research that shows those who receive high quality early education are less likely to repeat a grade, be placed in special education classes, drop out of school or go to prison, and more likely in the long term to earn higher average wages and become homeowners.

With Senate Democratic leaders set to unveil their fiscal 2016 budget on Tuesday, early education activists prefer the spending plan passed by the House in late April over the budget recommended by Baker in March. The final House budget allocates nearly $540 million for the Department of Early Education and Care, about $10 million more than Baker, and authorizes $18.6 million for full-day kindergarten grants that were not included in Baker’s budget. In all, advocates say the House budget includes about $33.6 million more for early education than Baker’s budget.

Other poll results:

— 86 percent of voters believe pre-kindergarten is important to preparing children to succeed in school, but only 45 percent believe that children currently have adequate access to pre-kindergarten.

— Fifty percent said they would be more likely to vote for a legislator who supported raising taxes to pay for pre-kindergarten while 41 percent said they would be less likely to vote for that legislator and the remaining respondents were undecided.

— About two-thirds are more likely to favor legislation that requires pre-kindergarten teachers to have college degrees. Nearly 60 percent are more likely to favor legislation that ensures pre-kindergarten teachers receive wages on par with public school teachers.

The Legislature and Gov. Mitt Romney in 2004 agreed to a law establishing the state Department of Early Education and Care and a new board to oversee early education. In 2008, Gov. Deval Patrick signed another major law aimed at developing a coordinated universal pre-kindergarten program and instituting a host of requirements for the department in the areas of planning, program quality and evaluation, and workforce training and development.

Baker edged Democrat Martha Coakley to win the governor’s race in 2014 after a campaign in which the former attorney general frequently portrayed herself as more committed than Baker to early education.

Copyright 2015 State House News Service