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A Bold Plan to Close the Early Education and Child Care Gap

High-quality early education and care prepares children for a lifetime of opportunities, eases the burden on working families, and properly values the providers who help set the foundation for our children’s lives. But despite years of promises, a massive early education and care gap has persisted in Boston—and the pandemic has only underscored this reality.

We need bold, urgent leadership to solve our childcare crisis. Massachusetts is the second most expensive state in the country for early education, with an average annual cost of $15,095 for a 4-year-old and $20,913 for an infant—nearly one-third of Boston’s median household income. Early education and care providers in Massachusetts—a workforce that is predominantly women, people of color, and immigrants—earn an average of just $24,980 a year, roughly one-third the salary of an elementary school teacher. Low wages lead to high staff turnover, which disrupts the consistency and stability that provide the foundation for children to learn, prevents many childcare providers from building a fulfilling career in this field, and discourages aspiring providers from entering the field at all.

In 2017, more than 14,000 of Boston’s children ages 0-5 years old lacked access to an available early education and care seat—a number that includes 74% of all infants and toddlers. The gap is particularly acute in certain neighborhoods, led by Dorchester, East Boston, West Roxbury, and Charlestown. Even before the pandemic, Boston had been losing licensed early education and care seats, and particularly those in family-based programs.

Early education and care is a public good, and it requires public investment. Boston must leverage City resources and our existing network of family-based and center-based providers to implement universal pre-K for all 3- and 4-year olds and affordable, high-quality care for all infants and toddlers; and invest in providers as professionals, creating a talent pipeline to meet the demands of the next generation. By elevating the well-being of children and families to the top priority of City Hall, we can make Boston a city for everyone.

Creating a One-Stop Shop for Enrollment and Access

We need an early education system that works for every Boston family––not only the most privileged. The City should streamline access and enrollment for families, resources for providers, and provide regularly updated data for accountability.

  • Create an Office of Early Education and Care. A fully staffed, resourced, multilingual Office of Early Education and Care will share provider resources, coordinate with non-profit organizations, house relevant data, and serve as a guide for families of all backgrounds as they navigate early education and care across Boston.

  • Streamline enrollment and outreach. Navigating the early education landscape is a difficult task, especially for new parents. Last year, nearly 20% of seats in community-based programs went unfilled. The Office of EEC will create a user-friendly, multilingual website and phone line for families to enroll their children in early education seats within BPS and at BPS-aligned center-based and family-based programs. The gaps between the pre-K lottery, the regular school assignment lottery, and community centers’ application process create unnecessary confusion and stress for families and perpetuates racial inequities. Aligning enrollment timelines will ensure all families know what options are available to them and enable a coordinated citywide outreach strategy.

  • Share real-time data for full accessibility. Navigating the vast and complicated landscape of early education options, availability, costs, and subsidies is a heavy burden for working parents with limited time. The City should integrate data across the city, state and federal level to create a one-stop shop for parents seeking information, vouchers or other financial assistance, and proactively reach out to all new parents in Boston to offer assistance.

  • Offer open-source resources for providers. The Office of EEC will work in partnership with local non-profit organizations to serve as a resource hub for current and prospective providers, including sharing business planning tools; sample policies, procedures and handbooks; pedagogical resources; networking opportunities for informal collaboration; and membership and discounts to online educational tools. The Shared Services platform offers some of these resources to providers; Boston should build a platform tailored to our local community context and ensure full language accessibility. Providing welcome kits to newly-licensed family-based programs would help providers navigate their financial and business management options.

  • Organize neighborhood communities of learning. The Office of EEC will organize neighborhood-based networks of early education providers––in BPS, center-based programs, and family-based programs. Neighborhood organization will help providers access up-to-date information, adapt to changing circumstances, and share best practices and professional development opportunities, and build community.

  • Leverage cultural institutions across the City. The Office of EEC will help connect early education providers to the City’s museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions to increase young children’s exposure to history, art, music, and other hands-on learning experiences.

Delivering High-Quality, Universal Affordability and Access 

Through City coordination and public investment, we will deliver universal pre-K for 3-5-year olds and affordable, high-quality care options for every infant and toddler in the city. We will dramatically expand Boston’s system of early education seats inside Boston Public Schools, and in partnership with center-based and family-based programs to offer flexibility to parents.

  • Connect BPS with existing family-based programs in the community. Our current pre-K options for 4-year-olds have shown that center-based programs and BPS can work together to deliver an educational experience tailored to the unique developmental needs of young children  Expanding these partnerships to include family-based programs will drive more resources to dedicated, experienced family-based providers, strengthening Boston’s commitment to ensuring that early educators receive benefits and salaries commensurate with their BPS peers, while bringing families with infants and toddlers into the BPS community––and existing programs run by Boston’s major employers have demonstrated that this model can work.

  • Invest in the creation of new early education programs. To create enough seats to meet the needs of all of Boston’s young children, the City should make targeted investments in center-based and family-based programs aligned with BPS. Offering rent-free space in municipal buildings and public facilities to non-profit providers, and providing assistance with rent, mortgage payments, or start-up costs to family-based providers will create new early education seats––while offering cost savings that can be passed down to families with children under 3 through a sliding scale fee structure. 

  • Recognize early education providers as professionals. The research is clear that early education provides a wealth of cognitive, social and academic benefits to children. Early educators must be valued for the work they do. City investment in BPS-aligned early education programs will ensure that all educators in our community receive good salaries, strong benefits, workplace protections, and ongoing opportunities for professional development––mitigating staff turnover, providing the stability and consistency that is the foundation for children’s learning, and attracting passionate young people and other aspiring educators into the profession.

  • Prioritize partnerships in early education deserts. Parts of East Boston and Hyde Park and other neighborhoods with a high proportion of Boston’s young children are considered to be early education deserts. The expansion of new early education centers in partnership with BPS should begin in these neighborhoods with the greatest need.

  • Extend good food standards to early education centers. With the adoption of the Good Food Purchasing Program in 2019, BPS has committed to sourcing food that meets rigorous, community-determined standards around nutritional quality, racial equity, environmental sustainability, a valued workforce, local economics, and animal welfare. Extending these standards to early education programs will ensure that Boston’s young children have early exposure to nourishing food and healthy habits.  

Building a Sustainable Early Education and Care Career Pathway

By investing in early educators at both family-based and center-based programs, and by supporting entrepreneurs looking to launch new programs, we can lift up Boston’s working families while also strengthening small business opportunities for an early education workforce that is predominantly made up of women, people of color, and immigrants

  • Create a talent pipeline through vocational and higher education programs. Boston is fortunate to have public universities and community colleges with deep expertise in early education and care. The Office of EEC will facilitate partnerships between these programs and providers to provide ongoing opportunities for professional development. The City should also explore the creation of an early education track at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School for students to pursue careers in early education, modeled after successful programs at other vocational high schools in the region that train providers and support local families.

  • Cut red tape for family-based programs. Family-based early education programs are generally more affordable than larger center-based programs, their hours tend to be more accessible for families with non-traditional work schedules, and their smaller setting is preferred by some families. We must make it easier for these programs to succeed, including by providing online, multilingual training programs, advocating for state-level regulatory changes to streamline the certification and reimbursement process, and implementing immediate changes in Boston––for example, early education providers should no longer have to seek rezoning approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals to start family-based programs.

  • Support programs in Boston Housing Authority. We must ensure that all BHA property managers understand that BHA residents can be licensed family-based early education providers, and work to make common space available for aspiring providers to more easily meet state licensing requirements. 

  • Expand the Childcare Entrepreneurship Fund. This program provides grants and technical assistance to support existing family-based providers as entrepreneurs and business owners. We must expand this program to include assistance for launching new childcare programs, reach all of Boston’s providers, increase the size of each grant, incorporate digital skills training, and ensure that early education providers are supported over the long-term.

  • Work with landlords and developers to make housing family care-friendly. Minor architectural considerations––such as making the restroom visible from the kitchen, and having two points of entry––can align residential units with state licensing requirements for family-based providers. The City should build these considerations into the development approvals process and work with developers and landlords to make it easier for aspiring family-based providers to earn their license. 

Offering Accessible, Inclusive Care for ALL Boston Families

Early education and care should meet the actual needs of Boston’s families, including parents who don’t have a 9AM-5PM schedule, families experiencing homelessness, and people living with disabilities.

  • Provide options for parents who work nontraditional hours. Local initiatives like the Independent Women's Project help fill gaps for parents who work in industries with non-traditional hours, like hospitality, food service and construction. We must partner with employers, unions and other provider initiatives in these fast-growing sectors to ensure all working parents have access to quality, affordable, and dependable early education options, and provide incentives for providers to open during nonstandard hours, including for parents who work overnight shifts.

  • Amplify the work of early education and care collectives. Collectives such as the Greater Boston Childcare Collective are organized directly by parents and are typically located in home settings. These programs fill gaps in care, and hold enormous potential to meet the needs of particularly vulnerable parents, including those experiencing homelessness.

  • Ensure inclusivity in policies and programs. Given the diversity of Boston families, all early education and care programs should center the needs of children with disabilities and English language learners—who are often not adequately served later in their educational careers. Greater Boston is home to many graduate programs for early education providers, including experiential learning programs centered on teaching English language learners. The City should take an active role in building partnerships between these training programs and both family-based and center-based programs to ensure all providers have the knowledge, training, and support they need to offer high-quality education to young children with disabilities and those who speak a language other than English at home. 

  • Increase education about the resources available to families experiencing homelessness. The City should provide educational programming for early education providers about vouchers in order to reduce any stigma and the likelihood that a childcare provider would turn a family away for using a voucher. The City should provide easily accessible and digestible information about the voucher system and early education options for families experiencing homelessness to ensure that all families, providers, and shelters know the services available to them––including Head Start, which provides comprehensive services to children experiencing homelessness at no cost to the family.

  • Provide fare-free transit for families experiencing homelessness. Transportation is a major hurdle preventing families experiencing homelessness from accessing early education and other services. The City should work with shelters to provide free MBTA passes to parents, modeled after the program for 7th-12th grade BPS students, to make it easier for families navigating complicated travel between shelters, workplaces, and early education programs.

Using City Authority to Build Family-Friendly Workplaces

Workplace-based early education offers parents the flexibility and peace of mind to have their jobs co-located with their children’s care. For employers, easing barriers for employees to balance family responsibilities helps recruit and retain a productive workforce. 

  • Strengthen Inclusion of Day Care Facilities (IDF) regulations. Boston's zoning code requires developers of large commercial projects in certain districts to dedicate a portion of office space to a child care facility or build such facilities off-site––but the outdated regulations no longer reflect the realities of Boston’s economy. To extend the benefits of this program to all of Boston’s working families, we must lower the minimum square footage threshold that triggers IDF and broaden its scope across the entire city, especially to districts that have become commercial hubs in the years since the IDF ordinance was created. The City should also create an EEC Trust where developers can direct IDF payments in lieu of directly providing space for early education and care, similar to the linkage program. The EEC Trust can be used to lower the cost of care for families in BPS-aligned programs and expand the Childcare Entrepreneurship Fund.

  • Enforce existing IDF obligations. To maximize public benefits, the City must work with the BPDA to enforce existing IDF obligations. Over the long term, stronger IDF regulations should be monitored for compliance alongside the linkage program and other developer commitments by an independent enforcement office of the City’s public planning department, which will ensure that early education and care is considered as part of the civic infrastructure needed to make new developments work.

  • Extend on-site care options to contracted workers. On-site early education provides flexibility to parents who might work inconsistent or long hours. However, this benefit is typically only available to the company’s direct employees, excluding contractors. Boston should use the PILOT community benefits process to ensure non-profit anchor institutions that offer on-site early education also extend these benefits to their contracted and subcontracted workers, such as cleaning staff and food service workers, and explore similar incentives for private-sector employers. 

  • Show City leadership as an employer. Some parents who work for the City have access to the BCYF City Hall Childcare Program, demonstrating the convenience of on-site workplace-based care. City employees are also entitled to up to six weeks of paid parental leave––one of the strongest paid leave programs in the country. The Human Resources Department should conduct an audit to ensure all employees are able to use the parental benefits to which they’re entitled and implement new policies based on best practices around flexible scheduling to support workers with family responsibilities. The City should regularly convene and recognize private employers to encourage the adoption of similar policies in the private sector.

Building Coalitions for Early Education and Care as a Public Good

Urgent leadership requires leveraging our power to amplify community voices to lobby for bold, systemic change at the City, state and federal level.

  • Support workplace organizing. Local labor unions like SEIU 509 and BTU and national coalitions like the National Domestic Workers Alliance are doing tremendous work advocating on behalf of early education workers, who are disproportionately women of color. Strong federal labor protections will ensure that these workers have the right to self-determination and a seat at the policymaking table.

  • Advocate for the proposed state legislation to cap early education costs. A new bill filed in the Massachusetts legislature would mandate that no family spend more than 7% of household income on early education and care. Care would be free for the lowest-income families and provided on a sliding-fee basis for middle-income earners. The legislation is supported by a coalition of advocates and business groups.

  • Deepen partnerships with the private sector. Working with the private sector to create additional funding sources could help increase both the supply of early education programs and the wages of providers without raising costs to families. Private sector leaders from Greater Boston have recently signaled that they plan to contribute to early education and care solutions in Boston. Social impact bond financing demonstrates that investments in early education show a consistent rate of return. By leveraging social impact bond financing and other private sources of funding, the City can increase its investments in both affordability and supply.

  • Increase funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant. The proposed federal stimulus bill in Congress includes $15 billion for CCDBG funding, which Massachusetts could use to expand subsidies offered to families or boost providers’ wages. This infusion of cash will help stabilize the sector from the most immediate disruption caused by the pandemic – but it won’t fix the underlying economics. We must continue to advocate for long-term, sustainable solutions.

  • Universal early education as a public good. COVID-19 has demonstrated how early education is the linchpin on which every other element of society rests. With bipartisan support for increased public investment to make child care truly affordable, now is the time for bold action. The upcoming federal infrastructure bill must recognize early education as essential civic infrastructure, just like K-12.