The cost of delivering universal, high-quality and affordable child care and early education in Massachusetts would exceed $5 billion a year in new public funding, according to a report, requiring the state to quadruple its commitment to an industry that has become a focal point for Beacon Hill.
The affordability of child care and access for families to high-quality programs has jumped up the priority list of legislative and Congressional leaders in Massachusetts after a year of the COVID-19 pandemic that exposed both its importance and vulnerabilities.
The report from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center estimated that the cost of expanding the early education and care system for children from infancy to age 4 to cover 288,000 children, or more than three times the 91,000 currently enrolled in public programs, would add $5.03 billion in cost.
The center’s estimate factors in increases in pay and benefits for early education teachers and staff and assumes a cap on the amount of money families would have to pay out of pocket, regardless of income or how many children they have in programming.
“This is obviously a long-term vision and will take a number of years to get there, but there are ways to prioritize this,” said Colin Jones, senior policy analyst for MassBudget. “All the evidence says if you take under-resourced kids, low-income kids, and put them in high-quality early-education programs you can see an impact.”
The release of the MassBudget report on Thursday comes a day after President Joe Biden rolled out a $1.8 trillion proposal named by the White House the “American Families Plan” that would invest $200 billion for free, universal pre-school for 3- and 4-year-olds and another $225 billion to raise the pay of early educators and make day care more affordable for families.
Like the model used by MassBudget, the Biden plan would cap family fees at 7% of household income, and if it were to pass Congress would wind up covering 45% or more of the new costs in Massachusetts, Jones said.
“Now’s a great time to think about doing it,” Jones said, referencing the potential influx of billions in federal aid. “We would need to set a multi-year plan to get here.”
According to the report, the total cost of providing services to 287,600 children, or about 80% of the children under 5, would be $7.56 billion. The report estimates that families, with a cap and a sliding scale for fees, would contribute $1.27 billion and the state currently allocates another $1.27 billion a year to early education and care.
That would leave a gap of just over $5 billion.
The center recommends a sliding fee scale for families that would kick in for households earning at least half of the statewide median income, or $60,000 for a family of four. Child care would be free for families earning less.
“The state could start with the families that need it the most, provide it and expand it over time and hopefully see the impact,” Jones said.
The report describes a high-quality program as one with a strong curriculum and professional development opportunities, small class sizes, well-compensated teachers and a full-time, year-round schedule that aligns with the schedules of working parents.
The full cost of providing this type of care and schooling through Head Start, subsidized centers and pre-school programs offered through local districts would average $28,267 a year per child, with infants costing more and pre-schoolers less, the report found.
While there were roughly 8,100 state licensed early education and care programs before the pandemic, MassBudget said the state reported in February that as many as one in six of those programs had not reopened, further exacerbating the crisis.
The “American Rescue Plan” passed by Congress shortly after Biden took office is expected to deliver more than $500 million for child care to Massachusetts to help centers regroup from the pandemic, which also resulted in reduced capacities in addition to the closures.
The center’s report also recommends prioritizing investments in communities of color, where Black and Latinx families are more likely to be lower-income and their children have unequal access to quality education that has long-lasting impacts.
“The system is not meeting families with what they need. It’s difficult to access, particularly in rural areas and low-income areas, and it’s extremely unaffordable,” Jones said.
Senate President Karen Spilka earlier this spring identified an overhaul of child care funding as part of her “moonshot” to create an intergenerational care system in Massachusetts, and U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark has been pushing for substantial new aid in Congress.
The Legislature in this year’s fiscal 2021 budget also created a Early Education and Care Economic Review Commission, and House Education Committee Chair Rep. Alice Peisch said Monday night she anticipated the commission would have recommendations by the end of the year.
State Sen. Su Moran, D-Falmouth, who sits on the commission, said Wednesday she would be hosting an online child care town hall for child care providers, teachers, and other stakeholders on Monday night.