BOSTON (SHNS) – Massachusetts needs to invest nearly half a billion dollars into extending a pandemic-era early education and child care grant program or risk the closure of hundreds of providers, putting key services even further out of reach for families, top Healey administration officials said Monday.
Gov. Maura Healey’s education and child care deputies made the case to lawmakers for enormous increases in state spending on those areas as part of the fiscal year 2024 state budget, pitching the Commonwealth Cares for Children (C3) grant program as a critical tool to stabilize early education and care providers upended by the COVID-19 emergency.
Since it launched in August 2021, a total of 7,426 child care providers or early education and care centers have received C3 grant funding, according to the Healey administration.
“Without a continuation of these grants, we’re looking at a serious swath of child care closures across our state,” Education Secretary Patrick Tutwiler told lawmakers at a Joint Ways and Means Committee hearing in Amherst. “Nearly one in 10 C3 grant recipients said that they would close their doors without this funding.”
Early Education and Care Commissioner Amy Kershaw later added that “at least 700 programs” indicated they would need to shut down without a continuation of C3 funds, representing about 15,000 slots for children.
Healey’s fiscal year 2024 budget proposal seeks nearly $1.48 billion in funding for the Department of Early Education and Care, an increase of about 25 percent over the fiscal 2023 spending plan lawmakers and former Gov. Charlie Baker agreed to last year.
Her plan would deploy $475 million, relying on traditional tax revenues and a portion of the newly available surtax revenue, to keep the grants going for another year. Kershaw said the proposal to use entirely state dollars on a program originally launched with federal money “signals a permanent commitment.”
By offering monthly grants to support providers with staffing and other operational needs, Kershaw said C3 ushered in “a paradigm shift in the way we fund early education and care.”
“One of the things that we learned very deeply during the pandemic is that we need to continue as a system to press two important levers. It is not ‘or,’ it is ‘and,'” Kershaw said. “We need to make investments, like in higher education, in the infrastructure so that the programs exist for families to be able to get the services they need and that they’re accessible to them in the communities where they live and work. And we need to press the lever to help our needs-based assistance for our families to help pay for the incredibly high cost of child care so that they can participate in the workforce.”
Bay State parents have long been burdened by some of the highest child care costs in the country and a short supply that ramps up competition for open spots. Last year, a special legislative commission estimated Massachusetts residents pay an average of more than $20,000 per year for infant care and more than $15,000 per year for care of a 4-year-old.
The panel found that before COVID hit, the average annual salary for an early educator was just a bit more than $30,000, and providers are generally unable to offer better pay without increasing tuition.
The pandemic, Kershaw said, “deeply and profoundly disrupted that already very-precarious balance.”
Three years after the public health emergency began, Kershaw said programs are currently experiencing about a 30 percent staff turnover rate, fueling a potent workforce shortage that cuts into availability.
The state’s latest survey data found that 35 percent of center-based early education and care programs are serving fewer children than their licensed capacity, leaving about 10,000 slots “not currently available” due to staffing shortages, Kershaw said.
She cited several reasons for the high volume of child care provider departures. Some opt not to work any longer, some leave to take retail or food service jobs “that are paying very competitive wages,” and others jump into K-12 education, which also can offer better pay and a shorter school year.
“We have a lot of folks who come into the field because they love working with young children, and then it just becomes untenable,” Kershaw said.
Industry advocates added their support Monday to Healey’s proposed C3 extension while calling for action to decide the long-term fate of the program beyond just next year.
William Eddy, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Early Education and Care, told lawmakers the C3 grants have been “a tremendous help to so many programs across the state.” He asked the Legislature to clarify whether the grants are a funding stopgap or a permanent tool.
“If it has long-term viability, which would be terrific, then say so,” Eddy said. “Too often, we are urging our members not to use that funding for raises but rather for one-time bonuses because there is no clarity as to whether it’s going to exist. We simply can’t ask executive directors to give annualized salary increases on money that might not be there the following year.”
Eddy also urged the Legislature to inject dollars into a rate reserve, double funding to provide child care to early education workers, and increase access to subsidized services.
Lawmakers praised the C3 program during the hearing broadcast live from UMass Amherst’s Student Union Ballroom. Rep. Kate Lipper-Garabedian, a Melrose Democrat, called the grants “an absolute lifeline” for providers and families. Republican Rep. Mathew Muratore of Plymouth offered a firsthand account as the co-owner and operator of Crayon College child daycare centers in Plymouth, Kingston and Bourne — something he called “a little bit of a curse because people that know I do in the area call me all the time about this stuff.”
Muratore described the C3 funding as “fantastic.”
“What’s happened, I think, with most of those is it’s really going to higher wages for staff. In our places and others around us, I’ve heard of places that have been giving raises three times in the last 18 months and are about to do it again because they can’t keep up with it,” Muratore said. “What we’re doing is we’re taking, we’re stealing from other places.”
He asked administration officials about possible efforts to attract new employees to the field and help prevent providers from competing with one another to poach workers.
Kershaw replied that the grants “right now are maintaining capacity, not increasing capacity” because of hiring and retention struggles. She said the state overhauled its licensing process to make it easier for new applicants to enter the field and rolled out new apprenticeships and mentorship programs.
With an eye toward another major theme of Monday’s hearing, Kershaw described the early education and care field as “the ideal focus” for another Healey proposal, the “MassReconnect” program that would make community college free for residents ages 25 and older without a college degree.
“We have a lot of adult learners, we have folks who might not have thought that higher education was for them, but if we have them working in early education programs, we can support them with learning opportunities and access to higher education,” she said. “I think that’s a really important recruitment.”