“Back in the 1800s, Massachusetts pioneered what was at the time a revolutionary idea— that K-12 education should be a public good, that education should be accessible to all children and families,” said state Senator Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill. “It’s time now for Massachusetts to once again lead our nation by establishing that high-quality early education and child care should be viewed the same way — as a public good.”
The initiative may sound too good to be true to beleaguered parents, not to mention budget hawks. The sweeping reform could cost hundreds of millions of dollars in each of the first five years of phase-in, according to sponsors who offered no firm price tag or funding stream to pay for it. More modest efforts — like Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s campaign pitch for free preschool for 4-year-olds — were halted by “sticker shock” when the costs came into focus, and the Legislature and governor declined to pick up the tab.
“Given current budgetary pressures, economic uncertainty, and our current reliance on federal funds to balance the budget, it would be a challenging time for the state to assume these costs,” said Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation president Eileen McAnneny.
However, the players promoting the campaign are some of the same business, union and social justice leaders who in 2018 negotiated the “grand bargain” that delivered Massachusetts paid family leave, an annual sales tax holiday, and an elevated minimum wage. The Common Start Coalition includes the Alliance for Business Leadership, Greater Boston Legal Services, SEIU Local 509, and the Massachusetts Business Roundtable.
“The pandemic has certainly moved the issue to the top of the business community’s agenda in a way I haven’t seen before,” said JD Chesloff, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable. Now, he said, “They get it.”
Proponents bill the effort as a timely correction for both gender and racial inequities after nearly a year of the pandemic, and wider public awareness of the uneven costs of caregiving. Working mothers have dropped out of the work force en masse over the past year as they shouldered responsibilities for children stuck at home. The fragile child care system that remains relies on a woefully underpaid work force that is almost entirely comprised of women — disproportionately, women of color.
“We need an early education system that works, and the only way that we get to a system that works is if we admit that it takes public money to do it,” said proponent Lauren Birchfield Kennedy, cofounder of Neighborhood Villages, an organization that advocates for child care reform. “We do not presume that a family can pay for a 6-year-old to 18-year-old’s education. . . . That’s what we ask people to do in child care.”
The premise is that early education should be funded like the rest of the educational system, with public support to make it available to everyone. Early education would be provided from birth to age five. After-school and out-of-school care would be available through age 12 or, for those with special needs, age 15. Existing preschools, day cares, and home child care providers would still be privately run, but less reliant upon parents’ fees for sustenance.
Proponents point to several potential sources of revenue, and a newly favorable political environment in D.C. The Biden administration has made child care a focus of its economic stimulus package and is expected to devote unprecedented federal dollars to early education.
On the state level, a legislative commission is already reviewing child care funding structure and Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, has heeded the industry’s desperate cries for help, offering early educator support as one of the state’s few budget increases last year.
“We’ve seen signals that this is an issue whose time has come,” said Amy O’Leary, director of Early Education for All, a campaign of Strategies for Children, an advocacy and policy organization.
Lewis, who also sponsored paid family and medical leave, said another potential funding source could be the Fair Share Amendment — a 4 percent additional tax on income over $1 million that would generate $2 billion a year for transportation and education. Known as the “millionaire’s tax,” that controversial proposal — whose original iteration was derailed by a lawsuit — was passed by the Legislature in 2019 and a second vote this year would put a Constitutional Amendment on the 2022 ballot.
The Common Start Coalition is led by Coalition for Social Justice executive director Deb Fastino, who also handled negotiations on paid family leave. Unlike that campaign, which began with a ballot initiative demanding change, this project began with business leaders at the table, Fastino said.
That’s in part because the pandemic has forced corporate leaders to see how essential child care is to the economy, as employees navigate working from home with children. The work-life balance long seen as an individual mother’s problem to figure out is suddenly everyone’s problem, and visible on Zoom.
“Finally we’re seeing the private sector, the business community, understand the importance of this ‘system’ to the economy,” said Mary Jo Meisner, a member of the Boston Women Leaders Network, which endorsed the legislation.
The Common Start legislation would change funding two ways. It would give every child care provider baseline funding — along the lines of public schools — based on their capacity enrollment. And it would significantly boost public subsidies, allowing more families to qualify at higher income levels.
It would even provide relief to middle-income parents for whom quality child care can be hard to find and even harder to afford. The average cost of child care for an infant in Massachusetts is nearly $21,000, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. A family with an infant and a four-year-old spend over $36,000 a year.
Though free or reduced-cost child care vouchers are available to low-income families now, the state falls far short of meeting the demand for those who qualify. Currently, 25,441 children attend child care in Massachusetts with public subsidies. Another 13,599 children qualify but remain on a wait list.
Child care providers, who were already running on a shoestring, have struggled throughout the pandemic to handle shutdowns, restrictions on enrollment, and shifting regulations. About 18 percent of child care providers closed last year, according to the state Department of Early Education and Care. Advocates hope that better financial support for the industry — and more generous pay for the teachers who sustain it — will strengthen small businesses and shore up availability for families.
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.