In Boston, there have long been debates about who gets into Boston Latin. Is the school diverse enough? Does it privilege the wealthy?
And every time I read an article about Boston Latin’s admissions policy, I think: Isn’t it a little late to be having this discussion?
Research shows that kids from well-resourced households are ahead of their low-income peers by kindergarten. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, an expert on early childhood development at Temple University, has said that “dramatic” gaps can be visible by age 3. So, yeah, leveling the playing field for 12-year-olds is going to be tough.
Which makes you wonder why we pay so much attention to the minutiae of school testing requirements, and so little attention to the fact that, if you’re a family having a baby in Massachusetts, our message is: “Congratulations! See you in five years!”
Leaders on Beacon Hill want 2023 to be a turning point. Legislation to aid both parents and child-care providers might get signed into law, and Governor Maura Healey’s proposed budget includes strong support for child-care centers, which teetered on the brink (and frequently closed) during the pandemic.
But implementation will take years. It’s unclear what the funding will look like. Or how much you’ll have to earn to get any help.
And for all our talk about equity, Massachusetts continues to leave low- and middle-income families stranded, while they struggle with the nation’s highest child-care costs (averaging $17,000 a year). The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation found that inadequate child care means parents can’t work as much as they want, which costs the state about $2.7 billion a year.
Meanwhile, a bunch of states have developed universal or near-universal pre-K programs for 4-year-olds, including Iowa, Florida, Vermont, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Oklahoma. This year, Oklahoma celebrates 25 years of its pre-K program. Just sit with that for a moment.
Ironically, many of these programs are inspired by the kind of research done at places like Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, which argues that brain development from birth to age 3 is so significant that it sets the stage for “educational achievement, economic productivity, responsible citizenship, lifelong health, strong communities, and successful parenting of the next generation.” Increasingly, states like New Jersey and Illinois are designing universal programs to encompass 3-year-olds as well.
Allison Friedman-Krauss, a research professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, told me that despite being near the top in K-12 education, Massachusetts is “just sort of in the middle of the pack, at best,” when it comes to the under-5 set.
“I feel like we’re losing generations of kids, to be perfectly honest,” says Maureen Perry-Jenkins, a professor of psychology at UMass Amherst. “And the gap that we see in adulthood is the gap that we see with children and infants.”
Perry-Jenkins has spent years interviewing working-class families in Massachusetts and says that, for those families, the quality of child care can be “at the lowest level.... We had some parents paying $1 an hour, but there were eight or nine kids, one adult, multiple infants.”
“It wasn’t until they switched out [of the day care] that they’d go: “Oh yeah, her diaper wasn’t being changed, or it seemed like she was in a crib all the time,” says Perry-Jenkins, author of “Work Matters: How Parents’ Jobs Shape Children’s Well-Being.”
In the families she interviewed, the median family income was about $44,000 a year. Moms often worked as nursing aides or food service workers, while dads were frequently truck drivers or maintenance workers. And trying to pay astronomical child-care costs proved impossible.
She found that the mom’s job often carried health insurance, while the dad’s job brought in more money. One person could quit their job, which might mean the family would fall into poverty. That would enable them to qualify for more aid, including preschool assistance. But it might also jeopardize their ability to afford housing, and many families were wary of government assistance.
So why does Massachusetts lag when it comes to child care?
W. Steven Barnett, who founded NIEER at Rutgers, diagnoses the problem this way: “Massachusetts is a very wealthy state... with relatively few poor people. And Massachusetts rides on that, to some extent. Families have a lot to invest in their kids, and it makes the job of schools much easier. Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Alabama are much poorer states... So the notion that [residents] turn to the state to invest in their children from a purely logical view is not shocking... It’s a strategic investment in their population.”
In Massachusetts, some towns and cities do have limited pre-K offerings (like Boston), but it’s a patchwork.
Healey has said that she wants Massachusetts to be “the first state to solve the child-care crisis.” First, of course, we’ll have some major catching up to do. And then, if we really want to be visionary, we’ll need to do what no other state does: provide high-quality care for infants and toddlers — not just 3- and 4-year-olds.
Though it would be quite expensive to provide free or heavily-subsidized child care, evidence suggests that it’s even more expensive to leave families on their own. Essentially, the choice is: pay now or pay later.
Cost-benefit analyses of high-quality child-care programs vary, says Rebekah Levine Coley, the director of the Boston College Institute of Early Childhood Policy. But the average is a $7 return on a $1 investment, stemming, in part, from increased tax revenue. “Show me other things where you get a 700 percent payback for your money.”
She notes that the economic benefits are multilayered. High-quality programs have been shown to reduce the chance that a child will ultimately go to jail. They can help set kids up for success in school, which means they’re less likely to repeat grades or need special education services, both of which are costly for towns and cities.
At a time when jobs require more complex technical and interpersonal skills, Coley argues, high-quality preschools are an investment in the people who will write our computer code, treat our ailments, and teach our children. Ignoring kids until they’re ready for public school sacrifices our competitiveness.
“The earlier we provide really strong supports for children and set them on a trajectory of emotional and behavioral and cognitive well-being,” she says, “the less costly it is to intervene and try to get them back on track later on when they’re off track.”
As Massachusetts finally focuses on helping young children and begins a multi-year legislative process, it’s important to remember that kids are waiting, and families are hurting.
During her research, Perry-Jenkins heard a lot about the struggle to balance work and child care. She says she “didn’t meet one parent who didn’t love their kid.” But she did “meet parents who couldn’t parent... and it was because everything in their life was impossible. And you see the trajectory right in front of your face and you can’t do a thing about it. That’s the piece that kills me.”
Now, we have a chance to do something. If we don’t, our workforce, and our children, will continue to suffer.
Follow Kara Miller on Twitter @karaemiller.