Senate bill eyes major new early education commitment

  • Sen. Jason Lewis, who co-chairs the Education Committee, said a new early education and care bill the Senate will debate next week would help “make sure our most needy children and families have access to the care they need.” Chris Lisinski/SHNS

State House News Service
Published: 6/30/2022 7:04:17 PM
Modified: 6/30/2022 7:01:43 PM

Senate Democrats on Thursday added to the end-of-term flurry an early education and child care bill they said would help more families deal with rampant costs, boost provider capacity and increase quality-of-life for a depleted workforce, but with just one month left to wrap up major business, a top House leader is already concerned about the “challenging timeline.”

A trio of top Senate Democrats outlined a proposal the chamber will debate in one week that would more than double the maximum income below which Bay State families could qualify for state child care assistance, create new loan forgiveness and scholarship programs as well as a “career ladder” for employees in the field, and allow subsidized providers to offer free or discounted slots to their own staff’s children.

Taken together, the bill’s wide-ranging provisions aim at a trio of goals: making child care more accessible and affordable, helping providers increase their capacity to care for more kids, and supporting a workforce hamstrung by high attrition and low pay.

The legislation, which Education Committee Co-chair Sen. Jason Lewis called a “policy bill,” would require significant investments but would not itself appropriate any money toward the early education and care field. Instead, senators likened it to the 2019 law known as the Student Opportunity Act, which charted a path toward overhauling K-12 public school funding with $1.5 billion in additional funding over seven years.

“We recognize this is not something we can do overnight,” Lewis said. “Much like the Student Opportunity Act, we expect if the bill is passed into law, the Legislature would deliver on this over time.”

Senators published a slideshow summarizing challenges in the field and highlights of the bill, but they did not make a bill text immediately available Thursday.

If approved, the bill would gradually raise the ceiling for early education and child care subsidies, opening up access to some degree of aid for many more Massachusetts families.

Current law limits subsidies to households whose incomes equal 50 percent or less the state median income, or $65,626 annually for a household of four, according to Lewis. The bill would, over an undefined period of time, raise that threshold to 125 percent or less the state median income, which Lewis said would be equivalent to $164,005 annually for a household of four.

Parents and guardians who receive subsidies would pay a “sliding fee scale,” Lewis said, with those who earn the least getting the greatest share of the total costs covered by government aid.

The state Department of Early Education and Care would be tasked with reviewing and updating charges families pay every five years to ensure they remain affordable, a term Lewis said is typically defined as no more than 7 percent of a household’s annual income.

Other sections of the bill seek to “stabilize” providers by creating a permanent framework for Commonwealth Cares for Children, or C3, stabilization grants. The bill would set minimum criteria for the formula the administration would use to distribute that funding, Lewis said.

To qualify for that increased and more regular pot of dollars, providers would need to show they are willing to enroll subsidized children, something that Lewis said is not universal in the current early education landscape.

“Whether they are nonprofit or for-profit, large or small, they are going to open their doors to subsidized families,” he said. “That’s important because obviously subsidized children are more vulnerable and we want to make sure our most needy children and families have access to the care they need.”

Additionally, the Senate bill calls for launching new scholarship and loan forgiveness programs for workers in the field and instructs EEC to create a “career ladder” with clear compensation tiers.

A special legislative commission that studied the crisis-in-progress found the average annual price tag for child care in Massachusetts exceeds $20,000, reflecting more than 22 percent of the median family’s income and more than 75 percent of the wages a typical early educator earns.

“We are glad to see the Senate moving towards passage of legislation that would represent a substantial step toward implementing our full vision of a high-quality early education and child care system that is affordable and accessible for all families,” said Deb Fastino, statewide director of the Common Start Coalition. “While we are reviewing the details of the latest bill, we know it will start to tackle the ongoing multifaceted child care crisis, aiding educators who are working for inadequate pay, families who are struggling to afford child care, and providers who are working hard to keep their doors open and their programs fully staffed.”

Senate President Karen Spilka said she believes the proposal would be “transformative to our society here in Massachusetts.”

“I would state this is the most comprehensive early education and care bill the Legislature has taken up this century,” Spilka said.

Both branches targeted additional investment in the field in their fiscal 2023 annual state budget proposals, a final version of which has not yet emerged. The House bill seeks $60 million for additional subsidy rate increases, and the Senate version allocates $250 million to continue the C3 stabilization grant program, Lewis said.

In May, the Education Committee advanced an early education and care bill calling for increased public spending on the field, permanent operational grants, scholarship and loan forgiveness, and workforce development. Lewis described the Senate redraft as “the next step in this process.”

Senators who summarized the bill to reporters said they expect implementation would take several years but that the legislation does not lay out a “specific timeline.” They also offered unclear, conflicting answers about its ultimate cost.

In March, the legislative commission outlined a series of recommendations to transform the state’s early education and care field that it said would require “upwards of $1.5 billion annually over time” to implement. Lewis cited that estimate when asked about the bill’s price tag, but cautioned against a direct comparison.

“That was what was estimated for the commission report, so that was specifically in the context of the commission report recommendations and putting a rough estimate around that,” Lewis said. “We have not done that analysis for this bill, which again is very aligned with those recommendations and is similar, but not identical, so I don’t think that would be accurate to use that number.”

Asked less than two minutes later what cost estimate reporters should use when describing the bill instead of the commission report’s “$1.5 billion annually over time,” Rodrigues replied, “That’s probably the best estimate to use, but it’s a work in progress.”

“This is going to be built as we go forward as far as implementing various steps,” Rodrigues said. “But we have to start with this foundation. Before we get to step two or three, we have to complete step one.”

The Senate will take up the bill on Thursday, July 7, just more than three weeks before the July 31 end of formal lawmaking business for the two-year term.

Rep. Alice Peisch, who co-chairs the Education Committee alongside Lewis, called the timeline for House action on the Senate’s proposal “tight.”

“It’s not a lot of time between now and the end of July to both digest what the Senate does, get a response from the business community, and take it up in the House,” Peisch said in an interview. “It’s a very challenging timeline.”

House Speaker Ronald Mariano in May asked business leaders to present his chamber “with a proposal for debate in the next legislative session” on how employers could provide child care resources to their workers.

Peisch said it’s “possible” the branches could tackle reforms in “stages” and approve both a version of the pending bill this session and something based on business feedback next session. The most impactful move in the short term, she said, is to ensure the final FY23 state budget boosts early ed funding.

“That, to me, frankly, is more important to get done in the next few weeks because that will have an immediate impact on stabilizing the field, whereas the bill – whether we do it in July or later or a little bit of both – the bill itself is something that will not have an impact immediately. It will be much more over the course of several years,” Peisch said.

Lewis said representatives on the Education Committee have “made public statements as well about how important they see early education and care,” and he called himself “hopeful that they will also be able to act in this space.”

“We can only control what we can control, and the Senate is committed to taking this up next week,” Rodrigues said about the likelihood of success by the end of the session.

And asked if he is confident the House will take up the Senate’s bill by the end of July, the Westport Democrat answered, “Why not?“

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