Elliot’s Provocations: The Bay State is Becoming an Early Learning Beacon - Early Learning Nation

Elliot’s Provocations: The Bay State is Becoming an Early Learning Beacon

Elliot’s Provocations unpacks current events in the early learning world and explores how we can chart a path to a future where all children can flourish. Regarding the title, if you’re not steeped in early childhood education (ECE) lingo, a “provocation” is the field’s term—taken from the Reggio-Emilia philosophy of early education—for offering someone the opportunity to engage with an idea.

We hope this monthly column does that: provocations are certainly not answers, but we hope Elliot’s Provocations helps you pause and consider concepts in a different way.

In an era of Congressional gridlock, states are increasingly lighting the path forward around early care and education. I have been immensely impressed by the progress Massachusetts has made in recent years, and several announcements in the past few weeks have highlighted why the country should be paying attention.

First, some context: Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey is proposing five connected pieces of action:

(1) Renewing $475 million in state funding to sustain “C3” (Commonwealth Cares for Children) operational grants that go directly to child care programs;

(2) Spending $65 million in adjusting its reimbursement rate for children receiving subsidy, and also taking steps toward using a true-cost-of-care calculation;

(3) Expanding eligibility for subsidy from families making 50% or less of state median income to those making 85% or less;

(4) Making a major investment in expanding pre-K access in its “gateway cities” (midsize urban centers that do not include Boston;

(5) Governor Healey issued an executive order to promote a “whole-of-government approach to child care” that “will bring together teams from housing, child care, education, economic development, workforce development, health care and human services to work in partnership with the business community to develop new and innovative strategies to expand access, build new facilities and reduce costs for families.”

This is a comprehensive strategy that presses on both supply and affordable access — and, importantly, acknowledges that sustainable supply-building is the first link in that chain. To find out more, I called leaders from two MA child care advocacy and policy organizations: Amy O’Leary and Marisa Fear work for Strategies for Children, and Lauren Kennedy is co-founder of Neighborhood Villages.

The trio explained to me in separate interviews that proposed revenue for all these elements is coming from multiple sources: a portion of “fair share” tax dollars, which is a 4% surtax on those with incomes above $1 million – MA voters approved it in 2022; an early care and education trust fund; and general fund revenues. In an otherwise modest budget year, Fear noted that these investments show “prioritization, in terms of how the government is clearly viewing this issue.” Kennedy agreed, saying that the proposals are a “a stake in the ground” about the importance of ECE and that they provide a strong baseline for future funding efforts.

The C3 grants, in particular, represent a departure from the approach many states are taking. Instead of trying to build a sustainable system by merely expanding subsidy eligibility and reimbursement rates, or temporarily extending pandemic-era stabilization grants, Massachusetts has shown a commitment to permanently supporting the operations of its child care programs. Around 7,500 programs receive the grants, which help them maintain payroll and make quality improvements while hedging against the volatility of enrollment shifts. The program also allows the state to collect important information about the sectoral landscape. According to state data, as Neighborhood Villages recently summarized, “50% of center-based providers and 47% of [family child care] providers reported that C3 allowed them to delay tuition increases; while 66% of center-based providers and 57% of FCC providers reported that they would increase tuition in the absence of C3 grants.”

(Operational grants are also the backbone of Canada’s $10 a Day system and they got their first federal mention in the newest version of the Child Care for Working Families Act. In my view, these should be a much larger part of the U.S. early childhood policy conversation. Kennedy concurs, saying that “once you have these operational grants in play, you can start having a really interesting conversation about the most economically effective way to go about financing a very complicated sector.”)

How did all of this come about? O’Leary, Fear, and Kennedy all credited leadership within government as a key enabling factor for Massachusetts’ progress. In addition to Governor Healey, O’Leary mentioned the Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll, who implemented universal pre-K when mayor of Salem, and Commissioner of Early Education and Care Amy Kershaw. Credit was also given to the former commissioner, Samantha Aigner-Treworgy, who steered the state’s early childhood system through the pandemic and led the creation of the C3 grants. The Massachusetts legislature has stepped up as well, for instance, appropriating the $475 million for C3 in the first place. The Department of Early Education and Care has also staffed up to meet the challenges posed by a more robustly-funded system, hiring dozens of employees to help with implementation.

O’Leary also noted that a critical element was “the early childhood community coming together,” as well as decades of laying the groundwork. For instance, the subsidy rate changes most substantially impact providers outside the Boston area, because they were contending with far lower reimbursements. Yet the Boston-area providers and advocates did not begrudge their peers this focus, instead working largely arm-in-arm. This solidarity has been helped by a recurring “9:30 call” which started during the pandemic and is still regularly attended by over a hundred early childhood stakeholders. The ethos, O’Leary says, is “you do belong, we need to stick together, we should all have this information, and we cannot go back to our old ways. So, I think that the spirit of [the early childhood community] has helped legislators understand what we need.”

Of course, challenges remain. Massachusetts, like most states, is still struggling with child care workforce shortages. Educator salaries remain low. And even with all the new state investments, there are ongoing gaps in family access and affordability. (This is one reason, I believe, that the most dedicated state—while it can make huge, important progress—will never be able to solve child care without eventual federal funds: the budget ask is simply too large.)

What comes next, Kennedy offers, is continuing to work on subsidy eligibility and reimbursement rates, and figuring out the correct balance between demand-side interventions (like subsidy vouchers) and supply-side interventions (like the C3 grants). She would also like to see more of a focus on school-aged child care needs. Fear suggested attention will need to be paid to educator salaries (a cost modeling report by the Center for Early Learning Funding Equity is helping guide the state there), as well as family child care providers and family, friends and neighbor caregivers.

For all the obstacles currently facing the child care sector, we are witnessing something of a renaissance in state attention to the issue. It is also encouraging to see states learning from one another, as with several copying Kentucky’s plan to provide free or low-cost child care to child care educators themselves. If states—and the federal government, for that matter—want to see what a comprehensive approach to child care reform looks like, they could hardly do better than to look to Massachusetts.

Elliot Haspel is a nationally-recognized child & family policy expert and commentator, with a specialty in early childhood and education issues. He is the author ofCrawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It, and a Senior Fellow at the think tank Capita. Elliot has appeared on television as an analyst, including onThe PBS Newshour with Judy Woodruff, and his writings have appeared in a wide variety of top publications, including The New York Times,The Washington Post, andThe Atlantic. Elliot holds an B.A. in History from the University of Virginia and an M.Ed. in Education Policy from Harvard's Graduate School of Education.

Elliot also writes a free semi-monthly newsletter, The Parents Aren't Alright.

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