Advocates push universal, publicly funded early education
New focus on childcare amid pandemic
A COALITION OF early education advocates will introduce an ambitious proposal Tuesday to completely overhaul the state’s early education system. The legislation would provide universal, affordable early education in Massachusetts, turning childcare from a system that is now largely private pay to one that is primarily publicly funded.
The plan would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and the coalition has not yet proposed how to pay for it. At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has shed a spotlight on the importance of childcare to the economy –– and the fragility of the existing childcare system – the plan, while unlikely to pass, could provide a foundation for broader discussions about how to make childcare more accessible. It is being introduced at the same time as new powerful coalitions – a business organization and a philanthropic group –– are beginning to focus intensely on how to improve early education.
“The pandemic really laid bare just how critical a role childcare plays in supporting family economic opportunity and financial security,” said Lauren Kennedy, co-founder of Neighborhood Villages, which advocates for childcare policy reform and helped craft the bill. “You have an entire generation of parents sitting in front of their computers with children climbing the walls behind them…who are invested in seeing movement happen on fixing a very broken childcare market.”
The universal early ed bill is being pushed by the Common Start Coalition, a statewide partnership of provider organizations, parents, early educators, and advocates founded in 2018. Lead organizations include the Massachusetts Association of Early Education and Care, organizing groups like the Coalition for Social Justice and Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts, childcare workers union SEIU Local 509, and other child and parent advocacy groups. The Common Start Coalition has gotten funding from the national Early Childhood Funders Collaborative, Commonwealth Children’s Fund, and Family Values @ Work.
Under the proposal, families would get subsidies that would make childcare free for families earning less than 50 percent of median income – today, $62,668 for a family of four. Families earning more than that would have to pay no more than 7 percent of their income for childcare.
Almost all families would be eligible for some state support. For example, a family with an infant and a four-year-old in a childcare center pays on average $34,381 per year. That family would get a subsidy as long as they earned less than $491,100, although the subsidy would decrease as income rises.
The bill would also give public money directly to early education providers, a huge shift for a system that today is primarily private pay. Childcare providers would receive a “bedrock” sum based on how many children they serve. The Department of Early Education and Care would develop a funding formula that accounts for a provider’s operating and administrative costs, how many high-needs families they serve, and whether they fill gaps in the system, such as providing infant care or operating in underserved communities. The idea would be for the public funding, combined with parent fees and subsidies, to cover providers’ costs and let them pay higher wages to staff. The department would establish a new compensation structure for early educators, and daycares would have to adhere to the pay scale to get public money.
The bill would also provide money for after-school programs for children until age 12, and would fund grants to train early educators.
The bill is sponsored by Rep. Ken Gordon of Bedford, Rep. Adrian Madaro of Boston, Sen. Jason Lewis of Winchester, and Sen. Susan Moran of Plymouth, all Democrats.
Deb Fastino, state director of the Common Start Coalition, said the proposal will cost in the “hundreds of millions” of dollars. The group has not suggested a funding source, other than to say it would likely be a mix of federal, state, and parent dollars. The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center intends to release a cost estimate later this month.
The bill is an attempt to fix a long-recognized problem: the lack of affordable day care in Massachusetts, which makes it hard for many families to enroll in high-quality programs. That means children do not get the developmental benefits preschool can provide and parents, particularly lower income women, are kept out of the workforce. The childcare sector also has a problem retaining its workforce.
What makes the discussion unique this year is the growing societal awareness about the economic benefits of childcare. When daycares closed last March, parents struggled to balance work and childcare. In a survey conducted by a group of business associations in the fall of 2020, 91 percent of employers reported having significant concern about childcare and school issues adversely affecting employee productivity.
Last week, a group of business leaders launched the Massachusetts Business Coalition for Early Childhood Education, with a mission of advocating for policies that make childcare more accessible for workers, identifying ways to improve quality and affordability with an eye toward equity, and determining how employers can support early childhood needs. The coalition’s leaders include influential business leaders like MassMutual CEO Roger Crandall, Boston Globe Media Partners CEO Linda Henry, and Eastern Bank CEO Bob Rivers. Its executive director is Tom Weber, the former state commissioner of early education and care.
Co-chair Jon Bernstein, regional president for PNC Bank, said the coalition has been in the works for 18 months, but the pandemic exacerbated its urgency. Employees are more aware of the importance of childcare in a work from home setting; early childhood centers that were already stretched financially are now in crisis; and childcare opportunities are becoming scarcer, with only 82 percent of childcare centers having reopened during the pandemic. “As we shift to focus on return to work, we’re going to have problems with families who want to get jobs but can’t because there’s no place for their child to go,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein added that with women leaving the workforce in droves due to childcare responsibilities, “What you’re also seeing in the midst of this crisis is it’s exacerbating inequalities along gender and race lines.” According to census data, 71 percent of families with young children have all their parents working.
The business group has not yet determined what proposals it will support. Bernstein said its immediate goals are raising awareness of the problem in the business community, by highlighting the importance of childcare to child brain development and the return on investment to society from educating children at a young age. Longer term, he said determining the right solutions will be an “ongoing debate.” “Our goal is to work with government, philanthropy, early educators to find solutions to increase access, affordability, and quality. I don’t know what that looks like,” Bernstein said.
The focus on childcare also led to the launch in October of the Massachusetts Early Childhood Funders Collaborative, a philanthropic effort among nonprofits, foundations, corporations, and individuals dedicated to investing in early childhood education and influencing policy. Leaders include several United Way branches, charitable foundations connected to PNC Bank and Eastern Bank, the Boston Foundation, Commonwealth Children’s Fund, and private and community foundations.Collaborative director Brian Gold said the group started meeting informally a year ago, before COVID-19 hit, and pivoted during the pandemic to holding weekly informational sessions for members. The group has not created a pooled fund, but has focused on sharing information among funders and thinking about the best ways to advocate together and collaborate with other groups to improve the field. It has an advisory committee that connects the funders with people directly involved in early education. The collaborative has not yet laid out its policy agenda, though individual members have contributed to efforts like pooled COVID-19 testing at early childhood centers.
“The pandemic brought to light for a lot of folks the historic and systemic inequities and issues in the early childhood space,” Gold said. “For funders, for the public, it’s exacerbated a lot of what’s been in the field and in the community for a long, long time.”