Early Childhood Education in Massachusetts: A 2024 Update

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The financial viability of our model for providing early childhood education in the United States has historically been tenuous, and the COVID-19 pandemic only put more pressure on this already overstressed system. Back in 2021, ICH collaborated with Cambridge’s Office of Early Childhood to complete a literature review on how the pandemic impacted early care program operations. The findings at that time showed that the pandemic led to an increase in operating costs, and eventual closures of programs due to increasing financial burden. Minority-run, suburban, and family child care centers were disproportionately impacted by the closures. Additionally, EEC programs experienced difficulty accessing pandemic relief funding and were forced to increase tuition, leading to a decline in enrollment among low income families who were unable to afford the higher cost of care. 

As we approach four years since the beginning of the pandemic, where does early childhood education stand today? According to a new report by the Committee for Economic Development, paid child care usage has continued to trail nationally behind overall economic and labor force recovery.  In Massachusetts, pandemic-era funding expired on January 30th, potentially leaving thousands of kids in the state without care. While steps have been taken by the governor to help support the field, programs are still facing obstacles.  Providers continue to face funding challenges from increased operation costs, a workforce shortage, and increasing costs of living. As one response to these challenges, Headstart programs across Massachusetts have re-worked their programs to attract staff. By changing the scope of some of their programs, Headstart reduced their program size in order to offer higher salaries for staff. The resulting decrease in spots for children and long waitlists for families make clear that more substantial federal funding is needed to support a sustainable model of early care and education for all Massachusetts families.

Efforts are underway to effect policy changes to improve financial support for centers and parents. The Common Start coalition, made up of providers, parents, and organizations state-wide, is championing legislation that aims to transform early education and care across the state by expanding financial assistance for both families and programs. The Common Start framework would include a direct-to-provider funding model that would help offset operational costs, allowing providers to increase staff salaries without making cuts to their programming.

While two bills associated with Common Start await passage, some cities around the state are working to offset the financial burden on families by rolling out programs to help families access subsidized or free “universal” pre-kindergarten (pre-k).  Springfield was the first city in Massachusetts to offer free pre-k for all 3- and 4- year olds, beginning in 2022. The City of Boston launched a UPK program in 2019 and has been growing the program, including a recent investment of $20 million in 2022. The City of Cambridge is currently accepting applications for their new universal pre-k program, which will begin for the fall 2024 school year and is open to all four- and some three-year olds in Cambridge. Additionally, Gov. Healy recently announced the expansion of the The Commonwealth Preschool Partnership Initiative (CPPI), which provides subsidies to preschool programs in 26 cities to help families enroll children at low or no cost. The goal is to bring universal pre-k to all of these cities by 2026. While programs to ensure access to pre-k are a step in the right direction, it is clear that continued attention and funding is needed to bring equity and sustainability to the field of early education and care. It’s important to note that new developments are happening every day in the early childhood space. By supporting programs like Cambridge’s office of Early Childhood and Agenda for Children Literacy Initiative with strategic planning, evaluation, and technical assistance, ICH hopes to continue informing policy and practice that shape the field, improving it for educators, families, and children.

Additional resources:

https://commonstartma.org/

https://earlychildhoodcambridge.org/

https://www.nepm.org/regional-news/2022-09-09/springfield-now-offering-free-full-day-pre-k

https://www.wgbh.org/news/education-news/2022-07-06/bostons-universal-pre-k-program-gets-20-million-for-multipronged-expansion

Erin McPherson, MPH

Research Associate

Kristin King, MPPM

Senior Research and Evaluation Project Manager

Sharon Touw, MPH

Epidemiologist III