Universal childcare in Mass. comes with $5b price tag

WHEN EARLY EDUCATION advocates unveiled an ambitious proposal in February to overhaul the state’s childcare system and provide publicly subsidized universal pre-K, they were missing one major piece of the plan: its cost.

On Thursday, the liberal-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center provided a cost: $5.03 billion in new public spending to serve around 288,000 children from birth through age five.

To put that in perspective, next year’s state budget plans to spend $5.5 billion in Chapter 70 aid to fund the entire public K-12 system. The total state budget is around $47 billion.

The $5 billion figure relies on several assumptions about what universal childcare would look like. MassBudget estimates that the actual cost of a high-quality early education is $28,000 per child for a full-year, full-time program – a figure nearly double the funding that exists today for state-subsidized programs. The organization says that is the amount required to provide ample classroom space, professional teachers, and small class sizes.

It assumes a subsidy system in which childcare is provided free for families earning less than $57,800 for a family of four (eligibility would change based on state median income), and in which no families would have to pay more than 7 percent of their income for childcare.

Advocates of the plan have said it would need to be phased in over several years to mitigate the massive cost increase. But even so, the staggeringly high cost is likely to give lawmakers pause, since a $5 billion expenditure would need to come from somewhere – whether from a new revenue source or from cuts to other programs.

There are two potential new revenue sources, but both remain iffy. The first is a state “millionaires’ tax,” a proposed constitutional amendment that is working its way through the Legislature and could come before voters on the ballot in 2022.

The second is the federal government. President Biden, in his address to Congress Wednesday night, laid out an ambitious plan to vastly increase the social services provided to families, including providing universal preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds and increasing the pay of childcare workers, paid for by higher taxes on the wealthy. Colin Jones, senior policy analyst for MassBudget, told the State House News Service that if Biden’s plan passes Congress, the federal government would pay for 45 percent of the new costs in Massachusetts.

But both the millionaires’ tax and Biden’s “American Families Plan” – and the concept of universal preschool itself – are likely to face significant headwinds from policymakers concerned with the vast cost and who will be expected to pay for it.



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