EARLY CHILDHOOD IN MASSACHUSETTS education system is unaffordable and inaccessible to too many families, and it will cost about $1.5 billion a year to improve it, according to a report released Monday byspecial legislative committee examining the economics of early childhood education and care.
The commission, led by education committee co-chairs Sen. Jason Lewis and Rep. Alice Peisch, is calling for expanding the grants available to families while increasing financial support for child care centers themselves and their workers. But he stops short of calling for universal public preschool, as some activists have called for.
“What we conclude is that our current system of early education and care in Massachusetts is not meeting the needs of our youngest children, especially children from disadvantaged backgrounds,” Lewis said. “It’s not meeting the needs of all of our working families, and it’s not meeting the needs of many of our employers either, which is impacting the economy.”
Massachusetts has always been one of the most expensive states for child care. According to the report, the average annual cost of child care is around $20,000 for a baby and $15,000 for a four-year-old. Most families spend between 20 and 40% of their income on childcare.
Some public subsidies are available, but only for a limited number of low-income families, around 50,000 households. And the subsidies are so low — between 50 and 65 percent of the market cost of child care — that many providers won’t accept them, so many private child care centers are closed to subsidized families. The child care system is different from the school system because it is primarily paid for by the private sector, with federal and state funding primarily to help low-income families.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only made the situation worse. According to the report, 1,359 child care programs have closed since March 2020, representing 17% of programs and 23,395 spaces for children. About 70% of the closures involved family providers, who provide home care for a small number of children, and most of the closures involved providers who relied on private clients rather than public subsidies.
The lack of child care affects the economy. National studies have documented large numbers of mothers leaving the workforce during the pandemic due to a lack of childcare.
Yet even with the high tuition fees, child care remains a low-paying industry, with child care workers earning less than public school teachers. The average annual salary for an early educator before the pandemic was $30,000, or $14.11 an hour.
This system creates multiple challenges: low salaries make it difficult to retain a high-quality workforce, but centers cannot increase salaries without raising already high tuition fees.
“I think the work we’ve done over the past year has confirmed concerns we’ve had for some time that the system needs support to become stable and reliable,” Peisch said. “Not surprisingly, it’s harder for low-income people to find good, reliable child care than for those with more resources.”
The report recommends short-term and long-term changes. Immediately, he is asking the state to continue providing the child care stabilization grants that became available during the pandemic through 2022, at a cost of $480 million. He also recommends making permanent a policy instituted during the pandemic, where centers that receive grants for low-income children are paid based on enrollment rather than attendance, so if a child is absent, the center receives always the money.
To address affordability, the report recommends immediately increasing grant rates for low-income families and making it easier to apply for grants, while taking the time to determine how much a high-quality education really costs to enlighten future policy changes. The commission also recommends expanding subsidy eligibility from 50% of median income to 85% of median income, which would cost the state about an additional $425 million a year.
There are also recommendations related to helping child care staff, who are 92% women and 41% people of color. These include allowing programs to offer reduced tuition to staff, providing grants to increase salaries, offering tax credits and loan forgiveness to early educators, and creating a career ladder and an accreditation system that allows educators to earn more money as they continue their training.
Other recommendations relate to encouraging partnerships, such as sharing resources between centers and using public school pre-kindergarten to reach underserved families.
The report does not specify where the extra money will come from. He says new state and federal funds will be needed and that the state could explore partnerships with businesses so that, for example, more businesses offer on-site child care. “That’s something the Legislative Assembly will have to deal with,” Peisch said.
Coalition of education and business advocates calls for $5 billion in funding ambitious project to overhaul the early childhood system and provide universal, affordable, high-quality pre-k to all families, transforming a largely private system into one much more heavily publicly funded.
The Common Start Coalition released a statement praising the report as including “critical recommendations that, if fully implemented, will begin to address some of the most critical issues at stake,” including increasing affordability and workforce support.
Both Peisch and Lewis noted that the report goes beyond simply addressing the needs of three- and four-year-olds. Its recommendations relate to care for children from birth to age five and after-school care for older children.
Peisch said the state has limited resources and its priority is to help families most in need. “Maybe one day we will get to a universal pre-kindergarten for everyone, but for now I would prioritize the most vulnerable and needy students before expanding it to everyone,” Peisch said. . She added that she didn’t want to sacrifice infant or toddler care to provide universal pre-k for four-year-olds.
The education committee has received extensions from the legislature to continue working on bills related to early education until May 1. Lewis said committee members are waiting for that report. He anticipates that the committee will develop a comprehensive bill that addresses some of the report’s recommendations. Peisch said she, too, hopes the Legislative Assembly will adopt the report’s recommendations in the near term and over the next few years.
House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate Speaker Karen Spilka released statements praising the report. “By bringing [early education and care] suppliers, parents, heads of state and the business community together on these recommendations, we have laid the necessary foundations for an ongoing partnershipps continue as we consider ways to stabilize and support the EEC sector and build a stronger system to provide access to affordable, high quality care for families, especially our most vulnerable and underserved populations said Mariano.
Spilka said the report “sheds important light on how the actions of the legislature could serve to make early childhood education more accessible to all, while supporting providers.
Amy O’Leary, executive director of the advocacy group Strategies for Children, said the recommendations in the report “address many of the persistent challenges we face and set us on a path to building An affordable, high-quality early childhood education and care system for all Massachusetts families, including much-needed support for early childhood educators.