Last year, Beacon Hill took a big step forward on better funding for early childhood educators. As lawmakers debate the fiscal 2019 budget, it's time for another significant step.
Despite the importance of early education, the mostly nonprofit providers that serve children from low-income families have not been well funded. That has meant low pay; according to a 2014 study, 37 percent of Bay State early educators rely on some form of public assistance, be it subsidized housing, MassHealth, subsidized early education programs for their own kids, or the earned income tax credit, to make ends meet. So when better-paying jobs come along, they take them, which has resulted in a yearly turnover rate of about 30 percent among that workforce.
These are the people who provide child care and after-school programs for some 60,000 disadvantaged children in Massachusetts. Those kids become eligible when they are as young as 6 weeks and often participate in after-school programs until they are 12 years old. They come from low-income working families and from families transitioning off welfare or are in the custodial care of the Department of Children and Families. That last group, which numbers about 7,000, includes some of the most traumatized children in the state; the hours they spend in early education or after-school programs are often the most stable and nurturing part of their day.
Given that experts increasingly see quality early education programs as important to success, particularly for underprivileged children, there's a strong case for addressing the workforce churn by hiking pay. Advocates are engaged in a multiyear effort to raise the average wage in that sector up to $15 an hour, or about $31,200 a year, a level thought likely to decrease turnover significantly. A year ago, the average salary was $26,400. Last year's $28 million funding increase brought it to $28,500.
The advocates are hoping for another healthy increment this year. So far, the House, where Speaker Robert DeLeo has made this a priority, has responded. Its budget includes $20.6 million more for wages, which would bring the average hourly wage up to $14.38. The House budget also has funding for an early childhood education workforce council, which would, in conjunction with the state's community colleges, focus on recruiting, training, and retaining early educators.
The Senate has yet to release its budget, but the mood there seems to be receptive, particularly since Senate President Harriette Chandler spoke to an early education rally on Monday. Scott Zoback, her communications director, says that Chandler is "generally supportive of making sure that early educators get a fair wage," and that the Senate would review the House plan "and move from there."
A budget is always a battle for resources between competing purposes, but given the importance that early childhood educators and caregivers play in children's lives, this is an investment well worth making.