Inside the airy nursery room of the Nurtury child care center, program director Ronda Atkins-Martinez reached to move 4-month-old Davion out of the sun that was beaming through the windows of the Roxbury facilities.
Atkins-Martinez was doing double duty; the day before, one of three educators assigned to the infant room quit, leaving Nurtury at minimal staffing for those children. Whenever one of the remaining two teachers needed a break, or is out sick, another staff member or assistant must step in to help.
The staffing shortage is the latest sign of ongoing problems roiling not only Nurtury Early Education, but the entire child care industry.
“It’s all day, every day,” Atkins-Martinez said. “You’ve got to be a special kind of somebody to do this.”
Nurtury, a nonprofit that serves some of Boston’s poorest children, has had to close an entire facility and several classrooms in others in recent years due to staffing shortages, an example of what Nurtury chief executive Laura Perille deems “an absolute crisis” in the industry.
Despite using federal relief and short-term grants to increase salaries, “we are still struggling to find, attract, and retain workers in this field,” Perille said.
With sky-high prices, persistent staffing shortages, low worker pay, and not enough spots to meet parent demand, Massachusetts’ child care sector has emerged from the pandemic in even worse shape. And the dysfunction in the system ripples outward, affecting children’s development and plaguing businesses when their employees can’t find reliable child care. For decades, very little has been done about it.
This year, however, advocates say they are finally seeing political will on Beacon Hill and beyond to take action.
For the first time in recent memory, all three key decision makers on Beacon Hill — Governor Maura Healey, Senate President Karen E. Spilka, and House Speaker Ronald J. Mariano — have explicitly said they want to tackle the issue, expressing support for legislation that would infuse the child care sector with public funding, much like K-12 schools already receive. It aims to create a five-year blueprint to provide child care and preschool for all families, and bump up the value of child care subsidies awarded to the state’s neediest families.
On the campaign trail and in her inaugural address, Healey committed to an expanded child tax credit and voiced support for the Common Start legislation being pushed by a network of groups advocating for publicly funded, universal early-childhood education.
In a statement, Healey said her administration is “actively evaluating” how to deliver aid for parents and educators through the budget and “other avenues.” Healey is expected to announce her first budget proposal next month.
“I also strongly support a legislative solution to this crisis,” Healey told the Globe. She declined to provide further detail.
Without state or federal support, wages for early education workers have fallen lower than other teaching jobs, and wait lists for child care spots remain frustratingly long. And when spots do open, parents find themselves forking over more than what they’d pay for tuition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Parents in Middlesex and Norfolk counties paid more than $26,000 annually for child care, according to the Department of Labor. Only Arlington County in Virginia and San Francisco County in California had higher child care costs.
In January, Spilka voiced a need to ”lay the educational cornerstone” for the state’s youngest learners. Mariano similarly committed “the full attention of the House” to workforce issues in early education and child care.
“In political and societal structure, [early education and care] has long been overlooked. It defies reason and logic,” said Perille, the Nurtury CEO. “What you are pointing to now is a real sea change.”
Early childhood education has never been treated like the rest of the educational system in the United States, which relies on a longstanding structure of public support. The current system operates with little permanent government support, relying mostly on private tuition or subsidies awarded to the most needy families.
Meanwhile, child care centers are held to strict state standards on everything from staffing ratios to nutrition programs to curriculum plans — requirements that all come at a cost. Without another source of funding, mostly likely from the government, staff pay will remain low and tuition will keep rising.
To help with affordability, the state provides subsidies to certain families who make 50 percent or less of the state median income. But the subsidies are low — the average is about $55 a day for a preschooler to attend a child care center — which means some providers who would like to accept children from some of the poorest families simply can’t afford to.
“It’s really not a system at all. It’s a private market,” said Lauren Birchfield Kennedy, cofounder of Neighborhood Villages, an organization that advocates for child care reform. “The way it operates right now is too expensive for parents to afford, and too expensive for providers to provide.”
COVID-19 threw the crisis into sharp relief, Birchfield Kennedy said, when the pandemic made struggling with child care “a universal experience.”
“It’s always been untenable,” said Birchfield Kennedy. “But now people are saying ‘enough is enough.’ ”
In 2020, the Legislature created a commission to address the issue, which recommended $1.5 billion in additional funding to stabilize existing programs, raise subsidies, expand the number of families who can receive those subsidies, and increase pay for child care workers.
Last year, the Legislature addressed some of the issues through the budget and a separate economic development bill, which included $250 million in grants to help providers recover from the pandemic, $60 million to increase salaries for teachers and other staff at subsidized centers, and $10 million for early educators to access child care themselves, among other things.
Advocates want lawmakers to go further and create a permanent funding stream more akin to that of the K-12 system.
Anne Douglass, founder and executive director of UMass Boston’s Institute for Early Education Leadership and Innovation, has observed a “new, never-before seen, unprecedented recognition” by policy makers “that quality child care and early education is the foundation of the kind of society and community that we want and need.”
Senator Sal DiDomenico, a longtime early childhood advocate who served on the legislative commission, pledged “we’ll make it happen” in the current session.
“We always said it was important,” said the Everett Democrat, a cosponsor on the Common Start legislation. “But now we have the political will and the folks in all areas ready to make that commitment.”
The state of early education has gained national prominence, as well. In recent years, high-profile Democratic women have championed policies on child care and family leave, including several members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation.
“This is a problem for all of us,” Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose proposal for universal child care was a central plank of her 2020 presidential campaign and who continues to push the issue on Capitol Hill, said in an interview. “Child care is as critical to running this country to roads and bridges.”
Back at the Nurtury center in Roxbury, Atkins-Martinez moved on to a cheery prekindergarten classroom, where children sitting on yellow mats swapped cards meant to represent their current emotions. The 4-year-olds surrounded their teacher, veteran educator Miss Carmen, listening carefully, adoration clear in their eyes.
Nurtury, which has three centers and supports 145 smaller programs run out of private homes, pays a higher wage than many other programs, about $25 an hour for a lead teacher. But some instructors still have to work second jobs. Sometimes Atkins-Martinez supplements wages with gift card giveaways or monetary awards for good attendance.
Atkins-Martinez said legislative changes would not only help more parents access the type of care Nurtury provides, but allow her to recruit more teachers and reward her existing staff with wages that reflect their expertise. She said an investment from the government would also send a message that early educators are just as important as those who teach school-aged children.
“Brain development takes place from birth to 8,” she said, looking on at the room of 4-year-olds. “We really influence so much.”