Senate early education bill could transform childcare landscape

Bill seeks to make high-quality, affordable early ed universally available

IN THE 19TH CENTURY, Massachusetts pioneered the idea that K-12 education should be a public good, available and accessible to all children and families. Today we take this for granted. But at the time that Horace Mann was leading this movement, it was a revolutionary idea.

Three years ago, the Massachusetts Legislature began the process of transforming the quality of K-12 education through the Student Opportunity Act, beginning a multi-year process of significant new investments in all of our public schools to ensure every student in the state has access to high-quality learning opportunities.

We now have the opportunity for the Commonwealth to take another transformational leap by laying the foundation for high-quality, affordable early education and childcare that is universally available. By doing so, we would take a major step forward for equitable early childhood development; increase economic opportunity and mobility for parents with young children, especially for women and lower- income families; and better meet the workforce needs of our employers and growing economy.

The early years of life are a critical period for brain development. Stable, high quality early education helps young children develop stronger communication, social, and cognitive skills. Investments in early education have been shown to yield long-term benefits, such as higher academic achievement and greater lifetime earnings.

The pandemic certainly put a spotlight on the importance of reliable childcare for working parents, especially women, as well as the impact on productivity for employers. Female participation in the workforce has fallen to the lowest level in decades, which is contributing to worker shortages and hampering the Commonwealth’s economic recovery.

At the same time, early education providers are in crisis. Even before the pandemic, they struggled with an unsustainable business model, and their situation has only gotten worse. Given the low wages and poor benefits that they can afford to pay their staff, providers are facing chronic challenges with attracting and retaining early educators, almost all of whom are women, with many being women of color. Federal pandemic relief funding has been a lifeline for the early education and care sector, but these funds are one-time and not a sustainable solution.

The bottom line is that our current system for providing early education and childcare in Massachusetts suffers from a market failure. The average annual cost for infant care exceeds $20,000 and for a four-year-old is nearly $15,000. Many families pay between 20 and 40 percent of their income in childcare costs. At the same time, early education providers do not receive enough revenue from parent fees or public subsidies to adequately compensate their workforce and provide high quality, sustainable care.

Recognizing the need for major changes, the Legislature last year formed the Special Legislative Early Education and Care Economic Review Commission. Led by Rep. Alice Peisch and Sen. Jason Lewis, this commission released its report and recommendations in early March, providing a blueprint for the reforms and new investments necessary to transform the early education and care sector in Massachusetts.

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have prioritized implementation of the commission’s recommendations in their respective Fiscal Year 2023 budget bills, appropriating record levels of state funding for early education and care subsidies, stabilization grants, and workforce support.

On Thursday, the Senate will be taking up historic legislation that will continue this progress in transforming early education and childcare in the Commonwealth. The bill envisions a system where, over time, more families will be able to get subsidies to help pay the high costs of childcare. Eligibility would expand from families making 50 percent or below of state median income—$65,626 annual household income for a family of four—to families making up to 125 percent of state median income, or $164,065 annual household income for a family of four.

Meet the Author

Karen Spilka

President, Massachusetts Senate
Meet the Author
An Act to expand access to high-quality, affordable early education and care would permanently extend the pandemic-era stabilization grants that have been crucial to supporting all types of early education providers, enabling them to keep more classrooms open and better compensate their staff. Other provisions in the bill would strengthen recruitment, retention, and professional development for the early educator workforce; develop a new methodology for setting subsidy reimbursement rates that reflects the true cost of providing high quality care; improve data collection and reporting to assist with implementation; and begin piloting shared service models that can improve the efficient delivery of high quality care.

We are excited to work with our Senate and House colleagues and Gov. Baker to see this critical legislation passed into law. It will be transformative for our young children, working families, early educators, and employers.

Karen Spilka is the Senate president. Jason Lewis is the Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Education.