Boston Mayor Michelle Wu unveiled a new Office of Early Childhood Wednesday, which she framed as a first step toward fulfilling her campaign promise of universal, affordable, high-quality early education for all.
Though Wu said she couldn’t yet provide the new office’s budget or goals, she said it would offer families a “one-stop shop” for finding open early education seats among public schools, private centers, and home-based providers in one of the country’s most expensive cities for child care.
“Right now the system is quite fragmented,” Wu said outside the East Boston YMCA. “We know this is an urgent issue for anyone who has had to go through the pandemic with kids, for anyone who has had to try to find a seat in Boston and navigate the many, many complicated systems and registrations and applications. This is time for city leadership to step up.”
Wu envisions the office creating a multilingual website to launch sometime after the city hires a director. The office will also improve universal pre-kindergarten and support early educators, officials said. Wu said the office would also tackle the problem of affordability, which a city survey of 3,000 families released Wednesday highlighted as the top challenge in Boston.
According to the report, a small number of families are happy with their care. Nearly half of respondents with 3- to 5-year-olds wanted their children in public schools, but only 14 percent were enrolled, with many respondents saying they couldn’t access Boston Public Schools and instead had to pay exorbitant costs for private preschool. And 28 percent of parents of infants and toddlers said they are their children’s primary caregivers, though only 9 percent wanted to be. Many said they’d prefer a center-based seat but can’t afford the average $2,200 monthly bill.
During her mayoral campaign, Wu promised to implement universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds and create affordable child care for infants and toddlers through a centralized city office. She proposed offering rent-free space in municipal buildings, helping in-home providers with costs, and creating an early education track for BPS vocational students. Her plan did not include a price tag.
Education advocates praised the new office’s creation as streamlining enrollment for pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds — currently, the city offers two separate systems with different applications and deadlines, one for slots in BPS and one for seats in community-based centers.
“The current system does not work for families,” said Will Austin, chief executive of Boston Schools Fund, which helps fund public, charter, and parochial schools.
Austin said he hoped Wu would next articulate the office’s annual and multi-year goals for expanding access and affordability in pre-K and for younger children, but “getting her hands around the problem is the first step.”
Advocates said the new office could boost quality across the city’s hundreds of providers, with a centralized city-led effort to improve services like educator training, children’s mental health support, and COVID protective supplies.
The first five years of a child’s life are critical for brain development that sets a foundation for later learning abilities. Access to high-quality early education has been linked to long-term academic and career benefits, prompting advocates to call it an equity issue for those left out — largely low-income children or children of color.
The new office offers “an opportunity to prevent the academic achievement gap instead of trying to close it once it exists,” said Cherie Craft, chief executive officer of Smart from the Start, which provides early education in Boston public housing developments.
Offering families information on care options would improve equity in a city where access often depends on parents’ Facebook groups and friends, said Latoya Gayle, senior director of advocacy at Neighborhood Villages, a nonprofit that supports early education providers.
But costs are also a huge driver of inequities, Gayle said, and the city should provide more funding for early education. “Early education and care is a public good and it should be funded in a way that recognizes its importance,” she said. “We don’t expect people to spend $20,000 to $30,000 a year to send their kid to kindergarten.”
Wu said she still holds a long-term goal of attaining universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds in Boston. But she declined to say when the city would achieve that goal or how much it could cost.
Other cities — such as New York City, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia — offer free preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds.
Providing child care for Bostonians has long been a political talking point — former mayor Martin J. Walsh promised to provide free, quality pre-kindergarten for all when he first ran in 2013. By the time he left the office in 2021, Boston provided city-funded seats for about half of the city’s estimated 6,400 4-year-olds through a mix of public schools and community-based centers.
The city plans to fund preschool seats for a small fraction of the city’s thousands of 3-year-olds next year: 330 seats in community-based centers, officials said, and up to another 400 in Boston Public Schools, which mostly serves 3-year-olds with disabilities.
Wu said she hoped the state would increase its funding for early education through the proposed Common Start bill, which would cap families’ child care bills at 7 percent of their income.
State Representative Adrian Madaro, an East Boston Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill, praised Wu for her part, but said “we certainly need action at the state level.”
Massachusetts is the second-most expensive state for child care in the United States, with infant care costing more than in-state college tuition, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Finding affordable, accessible child care in Massachusetts became more difficult during the pandemic, with some providers shutting down as more families kept children home because of financial strain or COVID fears.
Boston saw an uneven impact, with East Boston losing more than one-third of its slots, while wealthier areas barely lost any, according to a 2020 report from the Boston Opportunity Agenda.