Massachusetts has the most expensive childcare in the nation. Advocates are trying to pass a bill to change that

Debbie Laplaca
Lower-income families would have access to care at no cost, while most other families would quality for financial assistance to lower the cost of care.

Proposed state legislation presently before the joint House and Senate Education Committee could help parents burdened by the costs of early education and childcare by subsidizing programs with public funding.

The Common Start Coalition says access to quality early education and childcare programs is out of reach for too many Massachusetts families. The COVID-19 pandemic, it says, has highlighted how critical those services are for Massachusetts families, for children, for businesses, and for the state’s economy. Tens of thousands of women have left the workforce, providers are closing their doors, and employers are suffering due to their employees’ struggles with childcare.

The solution, according to Common Start, is to treat early education like K-12 public education and provide state funding for childcare ages newborn to five.

Common Start is a statewide partnership of organizations, parents, early educators, and advocates who are working to make high-quality early education and childcare affordable and accessible to all Massachusetts families.

Its proposed legislation was filed in March 2021 and is presently in the joint committee on education. Recently, the committee’s reporting date was extended to May 1.

“Without safe access to affordable, high-quality early education and childcare, parents and other caregivers are either unable to work, or struggle to balance work with caring for their children,” says Common Start.

If enacted, the legislation would, over five years, establish a system of early education and childcare for children from birth through age 5, after- and out-of-school time for children ages 5-12, and for children with special needs through age 15. The new system would also allow children who age out during the school year to remain in care through the end of that school year.

Lower-income families would have access to care at no cost, while most other families would quality for financial assistance to lower the cost of care. The goal is that no family would pay more than 7% of their total household income toward early education or care.

Common Start is a project of the Coalition for Social Justice in Massachusetts.

Deb Fastino, CSJ Executive Director, said the joint Education Committee chairpersons led a separate legislative commission on this topic and reported short and long-term recommendations that align with the Common Start bill.

“I expect to see some good things come out of the legislature this session,” she said. “If they fully fund their immediate recommendations, it’s going to look a lot like the first year roll out of the Common Start Coalition bill.”

The CSJ launched Common Start in December 2018.

“Once the Paid Family and Medical Leave legislation was passed, the next logical step for the CSJ was to work toward affordability and accessibility in early education and childcare. Once you are home for three months what do you do next? Early education and childcare,” Fastino said.

Focus groups in 2019 built the bill. Once filed, public awareness began, which included roundtables and virtual rallies.

Katherine, a parent in Brockton, had this to say about the need for the legislation.

“Compared to many other developed countries, the U.S. trails behind when it comes to affordable, high-quality early childhood education. It’s time we fix this by providing all families access to affordable, holistic, child-centered early education.”

She continued, “If I had access to high-quality, affordable early education and childcare that would mean less of a mental and a financial burden would be placed on my family. My partner and I could return to work content knowing that our child is in good hands and can therefore focus on thriving at work. We wouldn’t have to consider sacrificing our way of life or possibly not working at all to care for our child.”

According to Common Start, important progress has been made on this front in recent years, from raising educator salaries and improving provider quality, to supporting affordability for low-income families and closing gaps in access for parents who work nontraditional hours.

Yet, according to a recent study conducted by Lending Tree, childcare is getting more expensive.

The cost of full-time center-based childcare for kids younger than age 5 rose across the U.S. between 2018 and 2020. The price jumped 5% to $12,411 for infants; 5% to $11,379 for toddlers, and 7% to $10,008 for 4-year-olds.

Massachusetts families with average wages of $83,738 pay 27%, or $22,577 of their income for infant in-center care, while families with toddlers pay 24.8% of their income for childcare, according to the study.

Funding for the proposed system would come primarily from federal and state funds, with additional support from local municipalities for public pre-K programs. It would also be subsidized by reduced parent fees from middle- and upper-income families, according to Common Start.

“While significant upfront investment is necessary to achieve the system we envision, over the long term, investments in high-quality early education and childcare largely pay for themselves,” the Common Start writes. “By improving education and life outcomes for children, spending on high-quality early education and childcare reduces the need for future government spending on special education, grade repetition, healthcare, and incarceration. By improving workforce participation rates among parents, investments in high-quality early education and childcare also lead to increased economic growth and additional tax revenue.”

The exact costs would be determined by the state Department of Early Education and Care, which is estimated to be hundreds of millions of dollars each year in additional federal and state funding, phased in over a 5-year implementation.

Common Start breaks that funding down to “Bedrock Funding,” where the legislation would create new direct-to-provider funds based on provider capacity that offsets its operating costs, including higher educator pay.

And, “Family Subsidy,” where families below 50% of the statewide median income, which today is $62,668 for a family of four, or $42,614 for a single parent with one child, would have access to early education and childcare options for free. Families with incomes above that threshold would pay no more than 7% of their total household income.

Cassidy, an early childhood educator had this to say about the proposed legislation, “As an educator, I see a lot of families who can't afford to put their children in early care. I'm concerned for these families; it’s not an equal field for all children as of right now. This stage of development is so crucial for children. Research has shown how important this stage of development is. I think the outcome for many children would be more positive if everyone had better access to early education. We need time and resources.”