BOSTON (State House News Service) – Longtime supporters of child care and early education reforms believe the upcoming lawmaking session is primed for historic action, buoyed by what they describe as growing public support and Gov.-elect Maura Healey’s campaign promises.
A new poll commissioned by the Common Start Coalition, which backs a transition to universal early education and care, found a clear majority of voters want the state government to put more dollars toward childcare services across Massachusetts.
Fifty-eight percent of registered voters strongly or somewhat favor increasing taxpayer funding for child care, according to results of the Beacon Research poll provided to the News Service. That’s 10 percentage points higher than the support Beacon Research found when its pollsters asked a similar question in a December 2020 survey also conducted for the coalition.
Andrew Farniatno, a spokesperson for the coalition, pointed to that increase as one of the most significant findings this time around, describing it as a sign of momentum as advocates make their case for change.
“It’s easy for voters to say they support something,” Farnitano said in an interview. “It’s a higher bar for them to say they think their taxpayer dollars should go to a spending area, and it’s a really strong sign of the deep well of voter support that 58 percent of voters believe more taxpayer funding should go to child care programs in the state.”
The Coalition for Social Justice Education Fund paid for the online poll, which sampled 817 registered Massachusetts voters between Nov. 14 and 21, on behalf of the coalition. Farnitano declined to say how much the poll cost.
The latest survey found most voters in agreement that the early education and care industry is unaffordable for many families and does not pay its workers enough.
Citing figures similar to those a state panel produced, pollsters told respondents the average amount a Massachusetts family pays for infant care is nearly $21,000 per year and $14,000 for preschooler care. Nearly two out of three voters replied that those costs are “more than most families in the state can afford,” while less than one-quarter called it “generally affordable.”
An overwhelming majority of voters surveyed, 72 percent, said childcare workers and preschool teachers should be paid “significantly more than $30,000 a year,” which was about the average annual salary in the industry before the pandemic, compared to 19 percent who said $30,000 per year is an appropriate level of pay for the work. When Beacon Research asked a similar question nearly two years ago, 61 percent of respondents said childcare workers should be paid more than $30,000 and 24 percent said that salary is fair.
While voters were split on whether families should financially contribute to child care — 39 percent said it should be available and free for everyone, 44 percent said families should pay some of the costs and 11 percent said they should pay all of the costs — six in 10 said the state government should at least be involved in helping Bay Staters afford those services.
“This poll shows that several years into the pandemic, voters strongly feel that the state needs to do more to address the childcare needs of Massachusetts families. The voters believe the state needs to ensure that childcare educators are paid better wages and that there’s a role for the state government to play in ensuring that our childcare system works for everyone,” Farnitano said. “Right now, the system isn’t working for families. It’s not working for educators. It’s not working for providers. It’s just not sustainable to expect an early education system to exist primarily on private dollars from families.”
The COVID-19 pandemic thrust the early education and care sector into uncertainty, forcing programs to close and then adopt new health protocols to minimize transmission risks. It also exacerbated long-standing financial challenges many providers face and the difficulty families experience trying to find affordable and available slots.
A lack of childcare options created spillover effects for families and employers. Many parents, especially women, left the workforce to focus on caring for their children, contributing to an ongoing economy-wide struggle to attract employees.
In March, a special legislative commission tasked with studying the early education and care sector proposed a series of investments such as increasing subsidy reimbursement rates, using grants and rate increases to boost compensation for the field’s workforce and making permanent a pandemic-era policy that reimbursed programs serving subsidized children based on enrollment rather than attendances.
Authors said their suite of reforms would cost “upwards of $1.5 billion annually over time” to fully implement.
“The cost of reform is certainly an obstacle. We’ve been really struck over the last several years of running this campaign that there really aren’t philosophical concerns,” Farnitano said. “Everyone on Beacon Hill understands the need for more affordable child care, for a more sustainable financial model that allows educators to be paid more and creates financial stability for providers. We’re not encountering objections from those who believe that child care is a family problem, that government shouldn’t play a role in addressing. It’s really about, ‘How can we find the resources in the state budget to address this issue?'”
Lawmakers steered a total of $500 million in new funding toward the sector via the annual state budget and supplemental spending bills during the current two-year session, Farnitano said. Most of that money took the form of Commonwealth Cares for Children (C3) grants that allowed providers to increase staff pay.
Childcare reform advocates now want the Legislature to build on those investments with comprehensive action in the 2023-2024 lawmaking session that begins in January.
The Senate in early July approved a sweeping bill (S 2973) that sought to increase subsidies, boost pay and benefits for workers, and offer permanent grants to providers, but it stalled in the House without a vote. Last week, Senate President Karen Spilka told the News Service she looks forward to “hopefully” taking action on the issue again early in the next session.
Healey’s arrival at the corner office could alter the political dynamic. During her run for governor, Healey endorsed an earlier version of the Common Start proposal, which would eliminate childcare costs for the lowest-income families and limit it to no more than 7 percent of income for other families, plus increase pay for early educators.
“As Governor, she will partner with educational institutions to create an early education and care workforce pipeline — including expanded access to career development opportunities — and implement strategies focused on workforce retention,” Healey wrote on her campaign website. “Maura also supports efforts in the Legislature to increase salaries of early education providers and the effective implementation of the Early Education and Care Public Private Trust Fund.”
Farnitano said it’s “certainly important that she has made this a priority.”
“She ran a campaign that was very focused on affordability and looking at the things that are holding back Massachusetts’ economy, from housing affordability to child care to the cost of living,” he said. “I think this fits really squarely in with her agenda to make Massachusetts more affordable for families and make us a better place to live and work.”