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Stars aligning for early education improvements
State House News Service, Story by Colin A. Young, March 15, 2022
Funding, Political Will, Research All Focused On Sector
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MARCH 15, 2022.....The importance and vulnerabilities of the state's early education and care field came into sharp focus when the pandemic closed schools and child care centers and upended the work routines of many parents, and advocates on Tuesday said Beacon Hill has an opportunity this session to stabilize and reshape the sector.
The affordability of child care and access for families to high-quality programs soared near the top of the priority list for legislative and Congressional leaders in Massachusetts during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic and while no detailed legislative proposals have yet emerged, the issue remains one of the most frequently cited priorities on Beacon Hill, and the expectations for solutions are growing.
As the House and Senate prepare to debate and pass their own budgets for fiscal year 2023 over the next two months, early education and child care appears primed to be a major focus of investment and attention.
"I do feel like the circumstances are aligned like never before in my 20 years of early childhood advocacy for really significant game-changing action on early childhood education," JD Chesloff, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable and former chairman of the Board and Department of Early Education and Care, said Tuesday afternoon during a hearing on the education portions of Gov. Charlie Baker's fiscal 2023 budget. "There's really a commitment from a wide variety of stakeholders to work collaboratively toward a shared goal."
Baker's $48.5 billion fiscal 2023 budget plan (H 2) calls for $5.989 billion in Chapter 70 aid to local schools, an increase of $485 million, and includes $591.4 million to fund the next increase outlined in the multi-year school finance reform known as the Student Opportunity Act. The budget also directs more than $1.4 billion toward higher education -- broken down into $589 million for the University of Massachusetts system, $319 million for state universities, $330 million for community colleges and $208 million for the Department of Higher Education -- and would provide $820 million for the Department of Early Education and Care.
The governor's budget would level-fund most early education and care line items, Strategies for Children said, and would not fund a rate increase for center-based early educator salaries or EEC's workforce development line item. Baker's fiscal 2022 budget did not fund the rate increase either, but the final budget passed by lawmakers included $20 million for it, the organization said.
During his testimony before the Joint Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, Education Secretary James Peyser said the Baker-Polito administration has increased early education funding by more than 50 percent since taking office.
"Of that amount, we've prioritized increasing subsidized provider rates by over $150 million in order to increase staff compensation and improve quality. And as of February, we are now implementing a new parent fee schedule that is more transparent and equitable, including no fees at all for families with the lowest incomes and rates that are below 7 percent of income for the vast majority of families with incomes below the state median," he said.
Baker included $450 million in a supplemental budget bill he filed in February to extend Commonwealth Cares for Children (C3) stabilization grants for child care providers through fiscal year 2023, telling lawmakers that the state's "strong fiscal position" allows fiscal 2022 surplus funds to be used "to sustain our efforts to respond to COVID-19 and invest in areas like early education, human services, housing and more."
Peyser said Tuesday that the funding would ensure that child care "providers can stay open, support their workforce, and even open up new classrooms, so that more working parents can get fully back into the job market."
But the C3 funding was not included in the version of the supplemental budget that the House passed last week and a House official told the News Service that the governor's proposal would benefit private-pay child care centers without prioritizing the state's most vulnerable children and the funding. The Senate is expected to take up its version of the bill in the coming weeks.
"I think we're going to need the local, state, federal solution. If you think about the vehicles, we have the fiscal year '23 budget, we have the supplemental budget process, we still have federal dollars we have to spend, and we also have legislation pending," Amy O'Leary, executive director of Strategies for Children, told the News Service. "So we have a lot of opportunities to really address this and to really look at all the funding that could be on the table both in the short-term and then thinking about the long-term."
'Ongoing Financial Instability'
The state's early child care sector has lost 1,359 programs (about 17 percent of the total) since March 2020, which translates to 23,395 slots for children, a report released Monday from the Special Legislative Early Education and Care Economic Review Commission found.
The programs that remain across Massachusetts "are experiencing ongoing financial instability due to unstable and insufficient revenue and a growing workforce shortage," the commission said, and most programs are not able to offer better compensation without increasing tuition charged to families, which becomes "a major reason that compensation levels remain so low in the early education and care field."
And Massachusetts families are already spending a lot of money on child care -- infant care in Massachusetts averages more than $20,000 annually and the average cost for a 4-year-old is nearly $15,000 per year, according to the commission's report. For many families, early education and care eat up between 20 and 40 percent of their household income, even higher for families with one earner.
"Massachusetts consistently ranks as one of the least affordable states for early education and care," the report said. "Massachusetts is the third highest of the 50 states and the District of Columbia in the percentage of income spent on early education and care costs."
Ripple Effects Throughout the Economy
The costs of insufficient child care services are also felt in the economy. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation found last year that early education and care challenges lead to a $1 billion average annual loss in economic activity per state. By making the system more accessible, affordable and reliable, Massachusetts could make progress against the labor shortage that has strained numerous sectors.
"As Massachusetts businesses and employers encounter an overall labor supply shortage and project the need for future growth, women with children under the age of 18 who are not currently employed represent a key opportunity to grow the labor force, assuming that the early education and care system can be developed in a way that is responsive to families' needs," the commission wrote.
Last year, Senate President Karen Spilka said the pandemic "wiped out" a decade of progress for women in the workplace and declared that "We must take a close look at the factors that affect women's employment moving forward and the most obvious place to start is child care."
During an Associated Industries of Massachusetts executive forum, the Senate president said quality child care and early education can ensure that all residents are participating in and growing the economy. She also pointed out that the early child care sector will likely need to make changes to accommodate the way people work post-pandemic.
"Right now we pay per child, per head, and that hasn't worked because child care centers need to be open and their funding model now figures it out with a full capacity. We realized during the pandemic not all of them had full capacities. So what can we do to support our centers? What can businesses do?" she said last March. "Because clearly, businesses benefit from child care. I would imagine all businesses want to get the best talent that they can ... and oftentimes it happens to be a woman and we should make sure that we foster that and support it and put the resources necessary to do that."
Both branches have indicated plans to use the Special Legislative Early Education and Care Economic Review Commission report and its recommendations as the basis for legislation.
"We look forward to bringing back to the Senate, hopefully a very comprehensive, and strong bill to strengthen our early education and child care, as well as out-of-school-time system in Massachusetts," Sen. Jason Lewis, who co-chaired the commission, said last month.
A House official last week pointed to the expected release of the commission's report and said the House "will use those recommendations as a framework moving forward."