When it comes to child care, everyone knows you’re on your own. You get a good deal from your employer, or you don’t. You can afford eye-popping rates, or you hold your breath when the bills come in.
And when you find a child care center that you love, that makes your life work, you don’t let it go. Which explains why supporters of the Shattuck Child Care Center in Jamaica Plain are fighting with the state to keep it open — for the benefit of affluent families who lucked into a great situation, and low-paid state employees who don’t always get it this good.
The Shattuck is a nonprofit, private center in a most unusual setting, on the grounds of Lemuel Shattuck Hospital, a state hospital for prisoners and the indigent. It operates on the ground floor of a broken-down building with a crumbling facade, in space the state has provided for a nominal fee since 1969.
The setting is hardly deluxe. Yet families talk about the Shattuck as if it’s paradise: caring, educational, and diverse. A little more than half of its 40-some slots are reserved for children of Shattuck hospital employees, from janitors to doctors, who pay below-market rates on a sliding scale. The others go to families who live nearby and had been paying about $250 per week — not cheap, but a good deal in a state with the highest child care costs in the country.
Those rates are about to rise significantly, because the state just stopped paying $175,000 a year in salaries for the center’s staff — an arrangement that had gone unnoticed for years finally got noticed, and ended.
This is what happens when our culture, as a whole, leaves a vital social function to ad hoc arrangements and handshake agreements.
But cost isn’t the reason the Shattuck is in peril. State officials say the building that houses the center is getting dangerous and needs to be torn down. They want to move the center to the former Boston State Hospital, a quarter mile away.
But Shattuck parents say that site, accessible only by car, wouldn’t help hospital employees who take public transportation to work — and who now can simply walk their kids down a hill, drop them off at a place they trust, and get to work on time.
“If we’re not on campus, we’re no longer fulfilling our mission,” said Clare Reilly, a member of the Shattuck board.
Shattuck board members have offered to pay for modular buildings, so the center can stay on the hospital grounds. But to apply for grants and loans, they’d need a long-term lease. The state has only promised they can stay for another year. Some state senators tried, and failed, to insert a long-term lease into the state budget. Now, families are coming to terms with the idea that the center might close.
That’s absurd, because solutions are staring everyone in the face. The state could find a safe spot for those modulars, for free. Or it could offer transportation to and from the former Boston State Hospital, at a reasonable cost, for Shattuck employees.
But apparently it’s hard to drum up sympathy and political will for a small group of families that once got a special deal. This is what happens when our society, as a whole, leaves a vital social function to ad hoc arrangements and handshake agreements: We start arguing over fairness, instead of values.
Some will ask if we should be helping one small set of state employees, when the rest are on their own. (A handful of state buildings have on-site child care, but there aren’t nearly enough slots for everyone.) Some will ask why we should be helping neighborhood families, though their tuition helps subsidize slots for low-income employees.
The fact is, all of their kids need good, reliable child care. And as the Patrick administration has noted many times, good early education has many benefits, beyond the needs of individual families. Here’s one: Scott Jordan, deputy secretary of the Executive Office of Administration and Finance, acknowledged that on-site child care can attract and retain employees. He said a group of state managers is now studying whether to provide more child care in state buildings.
It would be a shame if that process moved forward while the Shattuck center closed. “Why on earth would we let it go by the wayside?” said Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, Democrat of Jamaica Plain. “It would just be a stupid tragedy.”
She’s right. We need more creative solutions, more good child care centers, not fewer. Even one fewer would be a loss.