Senate Bill Considers Major New Commitment to Early Childhood Education

On Thursday, Senate Democrats added to the end-of-term wave an early learning and child care bill that they say would help more families cope with rampant costs, bolster the supplier capacity and improving the quality of life for a burnt-out workforce, but with just one month left to close important deals, a senior House leader is already preoccupied with the “difficult schedule.”

A trio of top Senate Democrats have tabled a proposal the chamber will debate within a week that would more than double the maximum income below which Bay State families could qualify for public child care assistance. children, would create new loan forgiveness and scholarship programs as well as a “career ladder” for front-line employees, and allow subsidized providers to offer free or discounted slots to children of their own staff.

Together, the bill’s far-reaching provisions serve a trio of purposes: to make child care more accessible and affordable, to help providers increase their capacity to care for more children and supporting a workforce crippled by high attrition and low pay.

The legislation, which education committee co-chair Senator Jason Lewis called a “guiding bill,” would require significant investment but would not itself earmark money for education. education and care of young children. Instead, senators compared it to the 2019 law known as the Student Opportunity Act, which paved the way for overhauling K-12 public school funding with $1.5 billion. dollars of additional funding over seven years.

“We recognize that it’s not something we can do overnight,” Lewis said. “Like the Student Opportunity Act, we expect that if the bill passes, the legislature will act on it over time.”

The senators released a slideshow summarizing the challenges on the ground and highlights of the bill, but they did not make a text of the law immediately available Thursday.

If approved, the bill would gradually increase the cap on early learning and child care grants, opening up access to some degree of assistance for many more Massachusetts families.

Current law limits subsidies to households with incomes equal to 50% or less of the state’s median income, or $65,626 per year for a four-person household, according to Lewis. The bill would, over an indefinite period of time, increase that threshold to 125% or less of the state’s median income, which Lewis says would equate to $164,005 a year for a four-person household.

Parents and guardians who receive grants would pay a “rolling fee scale,” Lewis said, with those earning the least getting the largest share of the total costs covered by government assistance.

The state Department of Early Childhood Education and Care would be responsible for reviewing and updating the fees families pay every five years to ensure they remain affordable, a term according to Lewis is generally defined as not exceeding 7% of a household’s annual income.

Other sections of the bill seek to “stabilize” providers by creating a permanent framework for Commonwealth Cares for Children, or C3, stabilization grants. The bill would establish minimum criteria for the formula the administration would use to distribute that funding, Lewis said.

To benefit from this increased and more regular pool, providers would have to show that they are willing to enroll subsidized children, which Lewis says is not universal in today’s early education landscape.

“Whether nonprofit or for-profit, large or small, they will open their doors to subsidized families,” he said. “It’s important because subsidized children are obviously more vulnerable and we want to make sure that our most needy children and families have access to the care they need.”

In addition, the Senate bill calls for the launch of new scholarship and loan forgiveness programs for field workers and asks the EEC to create a “career ladder” with clear compensation levels.

A special legislative commission studying the ongoing crisis found that the average annual price of child care in Massachusetts exceeds $20,000, which represents more than 22% of median family income and more than 75% of salary of a typical early educator.

“We are pleased to see the Senate move forward in passing legislation that would represent a substantial step towards implementing our comprehensive vision of a high-quality, affordable early learning and child care system. and accessible to all families,” said Deb Fastino, statewide. director of the Common Start Coalition. “As we review the details of the latest bill, we know it will begin to address today’s multifaceted child care crisis, helping educators working for insufficient pay, families who have struggling to pay child care and providers who work hard to keep their doors open and their programs fully staffed.

Senate Speaker Karen Spilka said she thinks the proposal will be “transformative for our society here in Massachusetts.”

“I would say this is the most comprehensive early childhood education and care bill the legislature has passed this century,” Spilka said.

Both branches have targeted additional investment in the area in their annual state budget proposals for fiscal year 2023, the final version of which has yet to be released. The House bill calls for $60 million for further increases in subsidy rates, and the Senate version allocates $250 million to continue the C3 stabilization grant program, Lewis said.

In May, the Education Committee introduced an Early Childhood Education and Care Bill calling for increased public spending on the ground, permanent operating grants, the cancellation of scholarships and loans and workforce development. Lewis described the Senate overhaul as “the next step in this process.”

Senators who summarized the bill to reporters said they expected implementation to take several years, but the legislation does not set a “specific timeline.” They also offered unclear and conflicting answers about its final cost.

In March, the legislative committee presented a series of recommendations aimed at transforming the state’s early childhood education and care field, which it said would require “more than $1.5 billion annually in over time” to be implemented. Lewis cited that estimate when asked about the bill price, but cautioned against a direct comparison.

“That was what was estimated for the commission report, so it was specifically in the context of the commission report recommendations and making a rough estimate around that,” Lewis said. “We haven’t done that analysis for this bill, which again is very much in line with those recommendations and is similar, but not identical, so I don’t think it would be accurate to use that number.”

When asked less than two minutes later what cost estimate journalists should use to describe the bill instead of the “$1.5 billion a year over time” in the commission’s report, Rodrigues replied, “That’s probably the best estimate to use, but it’s a work in progress.

“It’s going to be built as we go through the implementation of various stages,” Rodrigues said. “But we have to start with this foundation. Before moving on to the second or third step, we must complete the first step. »

The Senate will consider the bill on Thursday, July 7, just over three weeks before the July 31 end of formal legislative work for the two-year term.

Rep. Alice Peisch, who co-chairs the education committee alongside Lewis, called the House’s timeline for action on the Senate proposal “tight.”

“There isn’t much time between now and the end of July to digest what the Senate is doing, get a response from the business community, and talk about it in the House,” Peisch said in an interview. “It’s a very difficult schedule.”

House Speaker Ronald Mariano in May asked business leaders to present his chamber with ‘a proposal for debate in the next legislative session’ on how employers could provide childcare resources to their workers.

Peisch said it’s “possible” that the branches will approach the reforms in “stages” and approve both a version of the pending bill this session and something based on business feedback in the next session. The most impactful near-term decision, she said, is to ensure that the state’s final FY23 budget increases funding for early education.

“That, for me, frankly, is more important to do in the next few weeks because it will have an immediate impact on stabilizing the ground, while the bill – whether we do it in July or later or a bit of both – the bill itself is something that will not have an immediate impact. It will be a lot more over the course of several years,” Peisch said.

Lewis said Education Committee representatives have “also made public statements about the importance they place on early education and care”, and he said he was “hoping they can also act in this space.

“We can only control what we can control, and the Senate is committed to resuming that next week,” Rodrigues said of the likelihood of success by the end of the session.

And when asked if he was confident the House would consider the Senate bill by the end of July, the Westport Democrat replied, “Why not?”

Norman D. Briggs