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OPINION

Invest in the economy, invest in early childhood education and child care

Massachusetts needs a new social compact for early childhood education.

Alexander Hidalgo, 12, and his mother, Angelina, help 5-year-old Angelise with her pre-K studies in April after schools shut down.
Alexander Hidalgo, 12, and his mother, Angelina, help 5-year-old Angelise with her pre-K studies in April after schools shut down.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

We are in the midst of a pandemic that continues to take the lives of too many loved ones and threatens and reduces the lives of us all. Meanwhile, we are finally engaging in a long-overdue national conversation about race and systemic racism in America that must spur real change and lasting solutions to address the need for social justice and equity. During this critical time, when so many aspects of our Commonwealth are in tumult, we must demand more from ourselves and deliver more for our communities.

This commitment is especially important for our children. Our youngest learners — infants, toddlers, and preschoolers — are shaped in critical ways by the first years of their lives. High-quality early childhood education has been shown to give children a boost toward future success, with research demonstrating that early childhood education helps close academic achievement gaps and improves longer-term educational and societal outcomes. Moreover, a strong child care system is essential for the health of families, communities, and the economy.

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Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the early childhood education system in Massachusetts was already not working well. Massachusetts ranks second in the nation for child care costs, yet providers have been forced to scrape by on a tenuous economic model that has led to thousands of program closures over the past decade. During that time, tens of thousands of early childhood educators left the field reluctantly in pursuit of the family-sustaining wages that they could not find in their preferred profession. All this instability nationwide has yielded a system that costs the United States $57 billion annually due to loss of productivity, according to ReadyNation, a national coalition of business executives.

When the pandemic hit, it exposed the inadequacies of the system in even starker and indisputable terms. Unlike K-12 education, which continues to receive significant local and state funding, the early childhood education system is supported almost entirely by tuition. Except for a small number of programs permitted to operate on an emergency basis, the early childhood education system was shuttered in mid-March. As a result, programs were unable to receive the tuition payments that make up 80 percent of their revenue. Now, this essential system, in crisis for years, is under threat of total collapse. Since Massachusetts permitted child care programs to begin operating again in June, only 5,200 of 8,400 pre-COVID child care providers have been approved to reopen. One-third of the system remains uncertain about the future, and many of those applying to reopen are doing so at dramatically reduced capacity, increased overhead, and lacking a viable business model. As the early education and care system gradually reopens, it probably will take years for programs to realize those lost revenues.

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The deficiencies in our early childhood education system, while felt across all communities, hit communities of color and women most harshly. Just as learning begins on day one of a child’s life, inequality of opportunity and its resulting learning gaps begin on day one. Many children, but especially children of color, suffer from inequitable access and uneven quality within the early childhood education system — gaps exacerbated by COVID-19. Women, especially women of color, constitute more than 90 percent of the low-wage early childhood education workforce. Conversations about racial and gender equity must bring about meaningful and lasting change in early childhood education.

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Clearly, there will be no easy return to “normal.” However, even once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, we should not seek to recreate the former system. We must be better than before. We must create a stronger, more effective, more ambitious early childhood education system to meet the needs of our children and their families from birth to kindergarten.

Concerns about our system are not due to a lack of dedication by early childhood educators. The commitment and sacrifices of early childhood educators have been heroic. There are numerous examples of educators trying anything to support their children and families, even to their own financial and personal detriment. These educators are taking a leap of faith; in many cases, exhausting their reserves, stretching and reducing staff, and lowering salaries to address the anticipated loss of revenue and the significantly increased costs associated with enhanced health mandates. If left unsupported, the selfless acts of these dedicated early childhood educators will be enormously consequential, and ultimately, children, families, and the economy will pay the price as programs reopen, struggle, and, in too many cases, close. The hope of early childhood educators is that society will finally recognize the essential services they provide and invest financially as deeply in them as they are investing in our communities. This is not only the right choice as a Commonwealth, but also the only viable path to a successful future.

Massachusetts business leaders recognize this and are giving voice to early childhood education’s essential role in the economy and advocating for its inclusion at the center of the Commonwealth’s reopening strategy. In Massachusetts, about 74 percent of children under the age of 6 have both parents in the workforce, and that figure is increasing. Child care needs to be strongly supported as a public good rather than a responsibility to be borne almost exclusively by families.

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Unless we resolve to meet the challenge together, we are on course for a crisis in early childhood education with major threats to program sustainability that will negatively impact access, affordability, and quality for all families. Left unaddressed, this crisis will also hamper the ability of citizens to reengage in the workforce, producing a drag on the state economy.

Massachusetts needs a new social compact for early childhood education. The Massachusetts business community, in partnership with government, philanthropy, and the early childhood education sector, must take direct action to ensure that we achieve something better than before. The current system’s reliance on families to finance most of the system is ineffective, unsustainable, and inequitable. The US Defense Department’s child care program and programs in Finland, Sweden, and Norway, among others, all benefit from more robust public support. Public-private partnership must be undertaken immediately and sustained for as long as it takes to realize a similar system for Massachusetts that meets the social-emotional and academic needs of our children, supports all working families and early childhood educators, accelerates the economic recovery, and secures a strong future.

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We also need new data systems in the near-term, to capture real-time public health and child care demand for informing and empowering family choices, and effectively coordinating the reopening. In the long-term, we must align family-centered services, program quality supports, and workforce initiatives.

The Early Education and Care Public-Private Trust Fund recently created in the state budget is a good first step, inviting business and philanthropy to partner with government to provide creative technical assistance to early childhood programs navigating their way out of the COVID-19 crisis and seeking a strong, sustainable long-term business model. But we must go further and faster. The federal government and Massachusetts must provide resources to stabilize the reopening early education and care system, studying anticipated new trends in supply and demand, designing new financing models to support all children and families, and redistributing the responsibility for supporting such a system from families to a publicly supported good.

In order for these efforts to succeed, they will require the commitment of business leaders from across the state. We are all in, committed to engaging employers to build a business coalition for early childhood education to help successfully navigate the crises and beyond.

If we miss this moment, we risk halting the economic recovery that will prolong the pain for too many families and businesses. We will also continue to perpetuate deep injustices within our society by denying equal opportunity to all. However, if the Massachusetts business community concentrates its considerable civic leadership and resources on the smart and necessary effort to rebuild and sustain the early childhood education system, we will not only improve the immediate prospects of our workforce and our economy, we will also secure a stronger and equitable future for Massachusetts children, families, and businesses.

Jon Bernstein is regional president of PNC Bank. Roger Crandall is chair, president, and CEO of MassMutual. Bridget Long is dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Saris Professor of Education and Economics. Bob Rivers is chair and CEO of Eastern Bank.