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Opinion

The Podium

Upgrade child-care facilities

It is time for Massachusetts to invest more in the infrastructure of child care.

As parents of young children, we spend hours agonizing over finding the best teachers and programs for our children but we seldom consider the influence of inadequate classroom facilities on their capacity to learn. Throughout children are going to child-care centers that are too cramped, have poor air quality, and lack space for pre-schoolers to run around either indoors or out. These inadequacies will not only have an impact on our children’s education and opportunities for success, but will also influence the Commonwealth’s ability to maintain a competitive economic edge.

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In 2011, the Children’s Investment Fund released a study that looked at the state of child-care facilities operated by nonprofit, community-based providers essential to many working parents in Boston and throughout the Commonwealth. The survey determined there were significant challenges facing operators — for instance, 33 percent of centers statewide and 50 percent of those in Boston had entrapment hazards in play equipment and structures; 54 percent of programs statewide, and 31 percent in Boston lacked indoor gross motor space and equipment, which is the kind of space that encourages movement and can help address childhood obesity. Statistics aside, the study revealed that a great number of children within the Commonwealth are attending child-care facilities without the infrastructure necessary to keep them safe and healthy.

The study recommended a public financing mechanism to help providers renovate or upgrade their facilities. The truth is that most nonprofit providers are well aware of the limitations of the space they are forced to work in. But community-based programs that serve children from low income neighborhoods are generally constrained by what is available to them — many of them are operating in church basements or community centers offered to them for free, or former store fronts — which they can rent at low cost. While most providers are appreciative of whatever inexpensive space they can find, these buildings are not designed for quality learning experiences for our children. Many operators of these centers would like the chance to improve the buildings they and their students occupy.

One of the great challenges facing these community-based child-care providers is that oftentimes they cannot afford or do not qualify for conventional financing to make necessary facility improvements. In January, we filed legislation that will authorize $45 million over five years for early child care and out-of-school time facilities that serve children and families living in low-income communities across the Commonwealth. This will provide flexibility in facility improvements or expansion, and allow providers to build new facilities or renovate as market conditions dictate. This bill also will ensure that providers receive technical expertise to expose them to best practices, which will help to ensure both high quality and cost effective projects. Finally, it will safeguard the state’s investment by requiring that facilities continue to serve eligible children for the life of the financing.

Not only essential to the growth and well-being of our young people, the early care and education and out-of-school time sector is critical to the Massachusetts economy, now and into the future. Two-thirds of children in the Commonwealth live in families where all parents are working. In order to work, parents need access to good care. High quality early care programs help children from low income communities thrive and help break the cycle of poverty; in fact, economists estimate a 7 -t0-16 percent return on public investment in high quality early education. Additionally, the sector currently provides 24,000 jobs and generates $1.5 billion in annual revenues. By passing this legislation, Massachusetts will be at the forefront of a growing national movement to invest in high quality early childhood education as a way of securing our future.

In February, President Obama focused on high quality early education programs, arguing they are one of the best, most cost-effective investments the country can make right now. Quality space – designed specifically for learning – must be part of the definition of high quality early education. Many of these children spend ten hours a day, five days a week at these facilities — we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to ensure that the space they’re in is designed to maximize their opportunities to learn.

Democratic State Senator Sal DiDomenico represents the Middlesex and Suffolk district in the Massachusetts State Senate. Democratic State Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez represents the 15th Suffolk/Norfolk District.

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