How to get the equation right on early education funding?

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Efforts to improve early childhood education got a major boost this week when the state approved a rate increase that will allow institutions to offer teachers better pay and benefits. The Board of Early Education and Care approved a 4.58 percent reimbursement rate increase worth $20 million on Tuesday for a reserve for state-subsidized center-based early education and family child care programs that serve children from financially strapped families.

The rate increase also supports a state goal to have the subsidized rate in all regions of the state be comparable to at least 75 percent of the local private market rate for the same type of care. Currently, the state Early Education and Care department subsidizes the enrollment of approximately 55,000 children each day in high-quality early education and care programs across the commonwealth. These subsidies allow families who are low-income or in need of assistance to access quality-certified education and care programs at minimal or no cost to them. The rate increase comes after years of efforts by a number of Berkshire County agencies and early childhood institutions to push for more local and state investment in early childhood education programs. The research-driven efforts to improve teacher training, pay and program quality carry the ultimate goal to improve lifelong outcomes for the county's youngest citizens. Logistically, the new rate increase means that centers can in turn invest the increase into the lagging salaries and benefits for early childhood educators, with the hope that this will incentivize teachers to join and stay in the field.

For example, if the average early childhood teacher makes $28,000 a year or about $13.46 per hour, a 4.58 percent rate increase that adds 61 cents to their rate of pay moves them up to $14.07 per hour.

But in Berkshire County, where centers typically serve a mix of families with subsidized rates and vouchers and those who pay out of pocket, it means that the latter families may now be subject to paying higher rates to make up the difference and match the reimbursement rates. The current daily reimbursement rate for preschool-aged children in a center-based program is $39.51. So a 4.58 percent increase would drive costs up by about $1.80 per day for families paying an equivalent rate.

With this in mind, local educators, leaders and legislators continue to push for a solution where the state can eventually fund equal access to quality early childhood classes for all families to balance the scales of cost and opportunity.

"It's amazing that our legislature is recognizing the importance of this investment. The movement is tremendous. But at the same time, so much more needs to be done across the state," said Gladys Allen Brigham Community Center CEO Kelly Marion.

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On Beacon Hill, Massachusetts House Speaker Rep. Robert DeLeo and his colleagues have been outspoken advocates, historically voting in favor of early childhood spending measures. Locally, that advocate has been Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, who works on the state progressive caucus and Massachusetts Gateway Cities initiatives.

"If we're going to change and make impacts on cities like Pittsfield, if we're going to address the issues of poverty, of income inequality and income attainment, we're going to have to address the issue of early education."

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Earlier this year, DeLeo announced a proposal to expand professional development partnerships for early childhood educators through public colleges. Such partnerships are well underway at both Berkshire Community College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. Informed by a state business industry report, leaders like DeLeo and Farley-Bouvier are now seeing early childhood investments as an early intervention model to address workforce development shortages of qualified, well-educated workers.

In a March response to the college partnership strategy, Cheshire native JD Chesloff, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, said: "Access to high-quality early childhood education and care not only benefits children, but is also a workforce issue, an economic development issue and a business imperative."

Doug McNally, chair of the Early Childhood Impact Council for Berkshire United Way and chair for the early education committee of the Berkshire Compact group ,was in Boston on Thursday presenting a white paper on the issue of credentialing and equitable compensation for early childhood education and care workers.

He said the Berkshires has long been beating the drum to promote quality early childhood programs and experiences, both in formal settings like public classrooms and centers, and informal settings, like museums and community programs.

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"Now we're seeing the state buying in," he said.

But, he said the current funding mechanism for early childhood programs is not sustainable, and that the state has to be cautious not to indirectly price out private paying families, some who are just barely above the income eligibility requirement to qualify for state subsidies.

Simultaneously, early childhood educators and caregivers are also struggling to make ends meet while being pushed to attain advanced teaching credentials.

Both Farley-Bouvier and William "Bill" Eddy, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Early Education and Care, cited the low pay rates and 30 percent annual turnover of early childhood educators in Massachusetts. According to the business industry report, an estimated 39 percent of early childhood teacher and care providers are enrolled in at least one public support program based on income; center-based and family care worker median salaries range between $22,501 and $27,500.

Eddy said balancing the costs in early childhood is a conundrum, noting that while one proposed solution — state investment in a universal pre-kindergarten system — is a good idea, it's also expensive. While an early pilot cost the state around $12.1 million, estimates to fund a fully staged program are upward of $153 million in annual expenditures.


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