BOSTON >> In just a few weeks, children across Massachusetts will be embarking on their first day of Kindergarten. Some of these children will be more prepared than others.
"We thought we were doing everything right," said Jenny, a young mom. "We thought we were so ahead of things, we had even started a college fund, but — no one told us what we needed was a child care savings fund!"
Study after study show the importance of high-quality early education in helping young children succeed. We know that the achievement gap starts early and that early learning programs help develop critical social-emotional skills that allow kids to start kindergarten ready.
But so often people can't access these critical programs. A survey of Massachusetts Fair Share supporters tells the same story as the statistics: We need a better system.
For the parents who want to stay home longer with their children, it can be a significant burden even in households with more than one income. One parent reports that even scaling back to part-time employment would be "unfeasible," stating, "We have to be a two income household, and suspect many are in the same boat."
Though it shouldn't be that way, staying home for long periods can also jeopardize future job prospects and long-term benefits of employment for young parents, like retirement savings.
Of course many parents see the benefits of going to a child care or preschool center. They are consistent, credentialed, and, because they must be licensed by the state, abide by thorough safety regulations. One father notes that, "Many parents, myself included, want our children to have rich peer relationships — we want our children to interact with other kids, learn how to socialize, and make friends."
But this kind of early education setting is not available to many. Infant care costs $17,062 per year on average and preschool-aged care totals around $12,781 per year, earning Massachusetts the second most expensive child care system in the country, exceeded only by Washington, D.C.
Parents have spoken out about the rarity of "finding a place that is of good quality and also affordable." Others have expressed frustration at the high cost of preschool and child care, arguing that "It costs as much as our mortgage" and "Most of the places I would want to send my children I cannot afford."
In-home or family child care is often somewhat more affordable, costing a little over $10,000 per year on average, but transportation can be an issue, and finding a location that has an opening can be very difficult.
Head Start programs and child care vouchers can be a great resource for families qualifying as low-income. However, these programs cannot possibly serve all eligible children due to limited space and long wait lists. Some estimate that, nationally, only about 1 in 10 eligible children actually receive care vouchers.
This means there is a huge gap for families who are not receiving any assistance, but also can't afford the care their children need to start kindergarten ready.
It's time for our leaders at the local, state and federal level to grapple with these issues.
Here in Massachusetts, investments to early education have been shrinking over the last decade. Since 2001, early education and out-of-school-time programs have lost more than $148 million in state funding, adjusting for inflation.
There were modest gains in this year's budget, but Gov. Charlie Baker targeted $17.5 million in that funding in line item vetoes. Legislators overrode some of this vetoed funding — which shows they support these programs. But there is still work to be done to reach an early education and care system that works for young parents. We must keep moving forward if we want a state where every child gets the strong start they need.
Chloe Sasson writes for Massachusetts Fair Share, which is a Massachusetts Fair Share is a statewide grassroots advocacy group calling for an expansion of the state early education programs.