With just one month remaining in the legislative session, top Senate Democrats Thursday unveiled a “transformative” plan to overhaul early education and child care in Massachusetts, modeled off the success they see in the Student Opportunity Act for K-12 public education.
The sweeping legislative package aims to curb astronomical costs of child care, with the average price tag topping $20,000 in Massachusetts — or 22% of the median family income, Senate President Karen Spilka said during a press conference Thursday afternoon at the Massachusetts State House. Gradually more middle-income families could be eligible for subsidies in the Senate proposal, which also focuses on increasing available classroom slots and addressing workplace woes, including low wages.
“Early education we know, and research supports, has positive and long-lasting effects built by a child over the entire course of their life,” Spilka said. “Stable, high-quality early education helps young children to develop stronger communication, social and cognitive skills. But for far too many families in Massachusetts, it simply remains out of reach.”
Barriers to accessing or affording child care have stymied female workforce participation.
Women’s participation rate lags below pre-pandemic levels, despite men’s workforce participation rate having fully recovered, Spilka said.
While there are 950,000 children ages 12 and younger in Massachusetts, only 220,000 slots are available at licensed early education centers, according to statistics shared by Sen. Jason Lewis.
Both the House of Representatives and Senate already made significant investments for the early educator sector in the fiscal 2023 budget, which remains under negotiations in conference committee.
Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues said his chamber will vote on this new bill next Thursday.
Rodrigues, when asked whether he’s confident the House will manage to tackle the bill before the end of July, told MassLive, “Why not?”
“We control what we can control, and the Senate is committed to taking this up next week,” Rodrigues said.
In the policy-laden bill without a concrete funding mechanism or timeline, Rodrigues surmised it would be implemented on a years-long rolling basis, similar to the Student Opportunity Act. Lawmakers see an opportunity to partner with the community to bolster early education and child care infrastructure throughout the state.
As a hallmark of the proposal, eligibility for child care subsidies would escalate over time. The goal is to move from the current level of 50% of state median income — or $65,626 for a family of four — to 125%, or $164,065.
“This is getting right at the heart of the issue, which is how many Massachusetts families, whether they’re low-income or middle-income, have a very difficult time being able to pay for the high cost of education,” Lewis, the Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Education, said. “It would be a sliding fee scale that parents would pay so parents that are at or below the federal poverty level would pay no fee at all … The bill makes it clear that those parents’ fees have to be reviewed and updated every five years and have to make sure that they are affordable for families.”
Under the federal government’s definition of affordability, child care costs should compromise no more than 7% of annual household income, Lewis said.
The bill also aims to alleviate pressure on childcare providers. Early educators earned just $30,000 annually before the pandemic, or 35% less than their counterpart teachers in public elementary schools, according to Lewis.
That’s created a workforce pipeline concern, and now lawmakers want to “professionalize” the career ladder, plus create loan forgiveness programs enabling educators to pursue advanced degrees and other training opportunities. Lewis said the Senate proposal would also allow early educators to have their own children access free or discounted slots at their centers.
In another key focus area, senators are aiming to stabilize the early education and care sector, including expanded grant opportunities and a new framework for calculating subsidy rates for providers. But to qualify for grants on a permanent basis, providers must be willing to enroll subsidized children who Lewis said are “more vulnerable.”
“If we have stable, thriving providers, that will allow for improved program quality, which is so critical to the development of young children, and it will also enable expanded capacity,” Lewis said. “So existing programs will be able to open more classrooms and provide more seats in family child care homes, and as well it would support and encourage more programs to open across the commonwealth, which would create more capacity and choices for family.”