Massachusetts House leaders on Monday released a plan to dedicate an extra $40 million toward bolstering the salaries of child-care providers in Massachusetts, a three-fold increase lawmakers say will help stabilize an industry where thousands of workers still toil in poverty.
The funding, while combined with a series of other smaller increases, marked an initial but relatively modest step compared to the $1.5 billion in new investments a legislative commission said the state’s beleaguered child-care system needs. Massachusetts families pay some of the highest costs in the nation for child care, while workers’ salaries average just over $30,000 a year.
The House proposal does not include measures that would substantially cut the prices with which many families grapple. Instead, it focuses largely on the industry’s workforce, by injecting new money into worker pay and shifting how some providers are reimbursed by the state by basing the subsidies on enrollment, not attendance — a change, lawmakers say, that would stabilize their revenue.
House Speaker Ronald Mariano acknowledged Monday that it’s a “little tough to pinpoint exactly what is going to change” as far as what families pay under the plan. But he, said, “the fact of the matter is we have to begin somewhere.”
“There is a system in place that is not working,” the Quincy Democrat said. “We saw a couple of things that we could do immediately that will make the system work much better than it’s working now. . . . It is a beginning.”
A special legislative commission that was formed to study the state’s early-education system produced a raft of recommendations last month, estimating they could cost $1.5 billion annually. Mariano and other House leaders said implementing the changes would take years, and that despite surging state revenues, the price tag is not something that the state could shoulder “all at once.”
The report, however, included several changes it said could be done immediately, such as changing how subsidized programs are reimbursed. The report said that alone could cost up to $5 million a year.
Overall, the House intends to pump $886 million into early education and care when it releases its state budget proposal Wednesday, a roughly $66 million increase from this fiscal year, according to House officials. That includes boosting a state rate reserve for worker salaries from $20 million to $60 million.
Aaron Michlewitz, the House’s budget chief, said Monday that lawmakers’ goal was to “address accessibility [of child care] first and foremost.” He, Mariano, and other House officials announced the proposal during a visit to the Ellis Early Leaning center in the South End.
“All these things, we think, will help solidify the financial underpinnings of places like this,” Mariano said, arguing that the state alone cannot address the burdens families and workers face. “It’s going to take the federal government. It’s going to take our business leaders . . . to pitch in and help. This is not going to be resolved by the state increasing funding by itself.”
The landscape for federal funding to pay for early education and child care is unsettled. Late last year, advocates had hoped their efforts would get a big boost from President Biden’s social spending and climate bill known as “Build Back Better,” and the version of the bill passed by House lawmakers promised to provide Massachusetts nearly $1.3 billion to pay for child care over three years.
But the legislation was effectively frozen in December when Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, said he wouldn’t back it.
The state, all the while, has faced increasing calls to help reshape the system. Lawmakers and advocates have pushed a sweeping proposal known as “Common Start” that would, for the first time, treat early education as a common good and pay for it with public funds, like K-12 public schools. That bill would limit what families have to pay for child care and boost the low wages of child-care employees. Such changes, supporters acknowledge, would require a massive infusion of taxpayer funds.
How the House proposal released on Monday affects the larger bill’s prospects is unclear. Mariano did not commit to tackling the “Common Start” bill before the formal legislative session ends this summer, saying only that “nothing is off the table.”
The Common Start Coalition, a network of groups that is pushing state lawmakers to adopt publicly funded, universal early-childhood education, organized a rally Saturday on Boston Common, where parents detailed their own struggles to find steady, affordable child care.
“I think they’re putting a down payment on our vision. It’s not complete,” said Deb Fastino, the statewide director of the Common Start Coalition, of the House’s proposal released Monday. “And we would like to see additional funding to help families. We do understand this is going to be costly, and it is going to take multiple years to reach Common Start’s vision.”
Few challenge that the state’s child-care system is under incredible strain. The average annual cost for infant care in Massachusetts is more than $20,000, and average families spend an eye-popping 30 percent more on infant and toddler care than they do on rent, according to the legislative commission’s study.
Despite those high costs, the industry pays low wages to its workers, whose pre-pandemic, average annual salary was just over $30,000, the study said. The state estimated that there are 50,000 to 70,000 people working in early education, roughly 15 percent of whom live in poverty.
Laura Crimaldi of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.