The news that the University of Massachusetts Boston plans to close its Early Learning Center by the end of the year because the school cannot afford to subsidize the center’s $550,000 operating deficit has led to claims that UMass Boston’s interim chancellor is “trying to balance the [school’s] budget on the backs of 55 babies and toddlers.”
Casting UMass Boston as the villain makes for a compelling story. But it does a deep disservice to the families understandably devastated at the prospect of losing quality care and education for their children. The truth is more complicated, and it can be found in the fiscal challenges of running a high-quality early care and education center that serves a large proportion of families with low annual incomes. In short, the numbers don’t add up, and everyone gets shortchanged: children, families, and child-care providers and teachers.
After studying the early care and education sector for months, a business advisory group working with House Speaker Robert DeLeo released a report in February declaring that the sector was “in crisis” due to its inability to retain qualified educators. A Senate report released this past May came to the same conclusion. The Senate report also noted that between 2011 and 2016, 3,562 early education programs in the state had closed, leaving Massachusetts with just 8,262 programs in 2016, whereas there had been 11,824 in 2011. The pending closure of the Early Learning Center at UMass Boston is a part of this larger trend — which significantly disrupts the early care and education of young children.
Teachers in Massachusetts early education centers earn between $22,000 and $25,000 annually, and 37 percent of them receive some form of public assistance to pay for basic necessities such as food, fuel, or shelter. Early education centers experience 30 percent staff turnover each year. It’s hard to maintain a program under those conditions, much less build, expand, and incorporate emerging best practices from the field into a center’s early education curriculum.
In Massachusetts, it costs more to pay for child care for an infant than one year of in-state tuition at a public university. The costs for early education and preschool are among the highest in the nation. These expenses are out of reach for families with low annual incomes. The state tries to make up the difference by offering child care subsidies. But the subsidies pay less than 50 percent of the market rate for early care and education. That is why compensation for early care and education professionals is so low, and it explains the near impossibility of retaining talent on a long-term basis.
One of the factors that has differentiated UMass Boston’s Early Learning Center from others is staff compensation. As the Globe reported, its teachers are paid between $35,000 and $64,000 annually. It’s a livable wage, and staff turnover is low. This is an essential component of quality child care. As a result, the families who utilize the Early Learning Center have enjoyed a consistency of care that is unusual in the industry. But approximately two-thirds of the tuition paid at the Early Learning Center is paid via the state’s child-care subsidy system. The problem here isn’t UMass Boston, which has been essentially subsidizing the Early Learning Center’s true operating costs for years. The problem is a lack of public investment in children whose families cannot afford the high costs of child care.
The way we invest our public dollars reflects our values, and the choices we make reveal our priorities. Unlike nearly every other state in the country, Massachusetts offers a generous $2,000 tax credit to families that invest at least that much in a 529 college savings plan for their children. By making this tax credit available to every family regardless of financial need, the state is making a powerful statement about its commitment to helping all families with the costs of paying for college. This is a laudable policy goal.
By contrast, we reimburse early care and education centers at half of their operating costs, and cap the number of subsidies the state will issue (there are nearly 24,000 children on the state’s child-care subsidy waiting list). In doing so, we are making a very different statement about our commitment to ensuring that all children receive early care and education in a quality setting that is rich with opportunity.
We can make different choices. If we really care about the early education of our children, this is what we need to be talking about.
Anne Douglass is associate professor and program director of the Bachelor’s Degree and Post Master’s Certificate Programs in Early Care and Education at UMass Boston, and the founding executive director of the Institute for Early Education Leadership and Innovation.