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Healey pushes to expand free preschool and subsidize child care for more families

Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey high-fived students as she visited a pre-k classroom at the Malden YMCA.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

MALDEN — Governor Maura Healey proposed a major expansion of child care in Massachusetts on Tuesday, saying she would include nearly $590 million in additional funding in her proposed budget for the next fiscal year while signing an executive order to explore partnerships with employers to increase access to early education statewide.

Surrounded by public officials and advocates in the Mystic Valley YMCA, Healey hailed her new “Gateway to Pre-K” agenda as a necessity for providers struggling with the rising cost of labor and operations, and for the future of the state’s economy at large.

“Child care is a linchpin” for Massachusetts, Healey said at the event, with a row of toddlers seated in front. “It’s central to our agenda, both for families, for education, for workforce, for business development.”

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Healey’s proposal would include $38.7 million to expand low or no-cost preschool options for 4-year-olds to all 26 Gateway cities by 2026. Twelve Gateway cities — which include Brockton, Fall River, Haverhill, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, Malden, New Bedford, Salem, Springfield, and Westfield — currently offer those options through the Commonwealth Preschool Partnership Initiative.

Another $75 million would fund the expansion of child care subsidies to families that earn up to 85 percent of the state median income.

Today, residents are eligible for the Child Fare Financial Assistance program if they earn 50 percent or less of the state median income, or $61,106 for a household of three people. Healey’s proposal would raise that qualifying income to $103,880 for a family of three, adding an estimated 4,000 low- and moderate-income families to the program.

The final proposed investment — $475 million — would maintain the Commonwealth Cares for Children grants, funds that were first put aside to alleviate providers’ costs during the COVID-19 pandemic. (The program was initially slated to run through last September, but was extended until June 2024, and now again.)

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Healey’s executive order also directs her administration to partner with the business community to work on creative ways to expand access to child care, build new facilities, and reduce costs for families.

The Globe first reported on the concept last fall, highlighting a business grant program in Iowa that in two years created nearly 11,000 more spots for the children of working parents. Now a pending bill in Massachusetts, modeled by business leaders after Iowa’s public-private partnerships, aims to do the same.

At the event Tuesday, Secretary of Education Patrick Tutwiler described the governor’s effort as a “fundamental transformation” to the way the state approaches child care.

“We are making systemic changes for the next generations of Massachusetts residents,” he said. “The child care and preschool initiatives announced today will act as a down payment to the future success of our children building a foundation for social, emotional, and academic success.”

Lauren Kennedy, cofounder of the early education advocacy nonprofit Neighborhood Villages, agreed, calling the proposal “a phenomenal step” toward cementing a permanent and sustainable financial pipeline for child care, and a leap toward academic and social equity.

C3 grants helped providers stave off tuition increases and remain open the past three years, according to a 2023 survey from the Department of Early Education.

“Couple [the grants] with increased access to child care and financial assistance, as the governor said today, and we’re having an exciting conversation about how we can push Massachusetts forward,” Kennedy added.

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What remains unclear is how Healey’s initiatives fit into the big picture, said Amy O’Leary, executive director of the advocacy organization Strategies for Children. Many of her proposals mirror the goals of two other bills already winding through the State House that aim to create new avenues for provider funding and financial assistance.

“With legislation already pending, how does it all fit together?” O’Leary said. “What does this mean for permanency? What does this look like and feel like for families long term?”

Healey’s proposals will need approval by the Legislature. In a statement, Senate President Karen Spilka said that the Senate plans to pass a “comprehensive early education and childcare bill” this session, and that she remains hopeful that “with a willing partner in the governor’s office, we can make permanent, meaningful changes to help parents, providers, and our youngest learners.”

House Speaker Ron Mariano did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

Still, Healey is signaling that child care is at the top of her agenda for this year. Tuesday’s announcement precedes her first State of the Commonwealth address on Wednesday. And the administration’s continued investment in the child care industry stands in sharp contrast to other recent budget news out of the State House.

In addition to Tuesday’s announcement, the state recently increased the reimbursement rate child care providers receive by 5.5 percent per student. And while Healey last week announced $375 million of budget cuts to over 60 programs, including senior outreach, homeless shelters, and cancer research, due to tax shortfalls, she left early child care funding as is.

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Even as Massachusetts parents wrestle with some of the highest early education costs in the country, they urged Healey to keep working on the issue.

“Our children are our future,” one first-time Chelsea mother said to the crowd Tuesday. “There is nothing more important than supporting them.”


Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her @ditikohli_. Samantha J. Gross can be reached at samantha.gross@globe.com. Follow her @samanthajgross.