Senate seeks greater public funding of childcare
Would subsidize more families, give money to more providers
MASSACHUSETTS SENATE LEADERS on Thursday unveiled a proposal to inject significant sums of public money into the state’s childcare system, which has traditionally been mostly privately funded.
The Senate plan would provide additional subsidies to families, including for the first time middle-class families, in order to make childcare more affordable. It would also pay more to childcare providers as a way to increase the salaries of early educators – a step toward stabilizing the industry’s struggling workforce.
“This legislation, if and when it’s fully implemented, will be transformative to our society here in Massachusetts,” said Senate President Karen Spilka. “In fact, I would say this is the most comprehensive early education and care bill that the Legislature has taken up this century.”
Lawmakers have not yet determined exactly how much the proposal will cost. A report by a legislative commission examining the early education and care system suggested that systemic changes will cost around $1.5 billion annually, and this plan adopts many, though not all, of its recommendations.
The Senate plans to vote on the bill next Thursday. With only a month left before the end of formal legislative sessions for the current two-year session, it is unclear if the House will even consider the bill, much less if both bodies will be able to get a final version to the governor’s desk.
While House leaders have also expressed a desire to improve early education, the House has proposed spending $60 million in next year’s budget to increase the rates paid to subsidized providers, along with some additional workforce supports. House Speaker Ron Mariano suggested to the Boston Chamber of Commerce in May that business leaders need to take some responsibility and develop a proposal for debate in the next legislative session to require large companies to provide some childcare resources for their workers.
House Education Chair Alice Peisch said she believes there is significant support in the House for many of the policies recommended by the legislative commission, including giving subsidies to more families and offering more operational, financial support to providers. “Whether we are able to get to that in the next four weeks, I’m not sure about,” Peisch said.
Peisch noted that the Senate bill would also set in motion additional studies in areas like how the business community could contribute and how to expand local partnerships. “Regardless of whether we pass a bill this session or next session, I think this is something we’re going be dealing with over the next couple of sessions,” Peisch said.
The problems in the state’s childcare system have existed for years but been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Women have exited the workforce in large numbers due to a lack of childcare. The industry has struggled with an exodus of workers, largely because childcare is a low-paying, in-person job. And the cost of childcare remains among the highest in the country – an average annual cost of $20,000 for infant care.
The state has provided additional support through provider grants and increased subsidies, but advocates, including many in the business community, have been pushing for systemic changes to make childcare more affordable, accessible, and sustainable in the long term.
“With this bill, we are taking the next step and creating a framework that will pave the way to ensure continued support for our early education sector for many years to come, making it clear we understand the vital importance and impact of early education to our economic recovery and the health and wellbeing of our families,” said Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues at a press conference introducing the bill.
“The bill makes it clear parent fees have to be reviewed and updated every five years, and we have to make sure they’re affordable for families,” Lewis said.
The bill would also help providers by giving them more money in two different ways. Today, subsidies for poor or at-risk children tend to be lower than the cost of care and less than private pay families are paying. The bill would require the state to use a new method of calculating subsidies, which more accurately reflects the cost of care.
It would also make permanent some amount of operational grant support, which would be available to all eligible providers. The state started giving operational support to all childcare providers, rather than just subsidized providers, during the pandemic, using the Commonwealth Cares for Children, or C3, grant program. Those grants, which are distributed through a formula based on staffing, capacity, and area poverty, are set to expire this month barring legislative action. The Senate bill would make the grants permanent. It would also impose some conditions on grantees, like the requirement that they accept subsidized children, should a child with a subsidy want to enroll.
“Subsidized children are more vulnerable, and we want to make sure the most needy children and families have access to the care they need,” Lewis said.
The bill also focuses on workforce issues by establishing educator scholarship and loan forgiveness programs, letting subsidized providers offer discounts to children of staff (which today is not allowed), and making recommendations for how much educators should be paid based on their credentials.While the state cannot set private provider salaries, Lewis said if the state increases the money going toward subsidies and operational support, “We’re going to expect from providers that is going to translate to better compensation, benefits, and program quality.”
The Common Start Coalition, a group of early educators, provider organizations, parents, and advocates who have been pushing for greater public investment in early education, praised the plan. “We are glad to see the Senate moving towards passage of legislation that would represent a substantial step toward implementing our full vision of a high-quality early education and child care system that is affordable and accessible for all families,” said Deb Fastino, statewide director of the Common Start Coalition. “While we are reviewing the details of the latest bill, we know it will start to tackle the ongoing multifaceted child care crisis, aiding educators who are working for inadequate pay, families who are struggling to afford child care, and providers who are working hard to keep their doors open and their programs fully staffed.”