Senate passes bill to embark on major early ed changes

Senators voted unanimously Thursday on a sweeping reform bill aimed at helping child care and early education providers, bolstering the pipeline of workers entering that field and helping more families access an expensive service that is essential to their economic success.

After a series of speeches laser-focused on the importance of connecting more Bay Area states to quality, affordable care, the Senate passed a bill (S 2973) that would end a years-long expansion of early education subsidies, pay and benefits for workers in the field, and permanent grants for childcare providers.

“Very few bills that we debate have the potential for as much impact as this bill,” said Sen. Jason Lewis, co-chairman of the Education Committee, said.

The legislation senators sent to the House would more than double over several years the income eligibility to receive some help paying for early education and child care, a move Lewis said would make services more affordable for hundreds of thousands of families.

Under current law, only households earning 50 percent or less of the state’s median income — equivalent to about $65,626 annually for a household of four — qualify for subsidies. The bill would eventually raise that threshold to 125 percent of the state’s median income, a level that represents about $164,005 annually for a household of four.

The reforms would prioritize families who need money the most and would seek to spread money equitably across different regions of Massachusetts, supporters said.

“We are helping to ensure an equal start in life. That is how I feel about this bill,” said sen. Jo Comerford, a Northampton Democrat, said.

Needham Sen. Becca Rausch said Massachusetts has “the highest child care costs in the entire country here.”

Senators focused on the current challenges Bay State families face trying to find or pay for child care. Improving access, they said, would be a boon to the economy by freeing more parents and especially women, who disproportionately bear the weight of childcare duties themselves, to focus on their own work.

Cindy Rowe, executive director of the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action and a member of the Common Start Coalition that has advocated for action to address early education and care needs, called the bill a “win-win situation.” named.

“It’s the right thing to do for our economy and it’s the moral thing to do,” Rowe said. “Without access to affordable early education and high-quality childcare, parents and other caregivers are either unable to work or struggle to balance work with caring for their children. Our entire economy is suffering because of the lack of early education and childcare options . This bill would be a big step forward in fixing that.”

Other sections of the bill would move to stabilize providers in the volatile field by creating a permanent framework for Commonwealth Cares for Children, or C3, stabilization grants and would support workers with scholarships, loan forgiveness and a new “career ladder” outlining compensation levels .

The industry has long struggled to attract and retain staff, and the pandemic has exacerbated these challenges. Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr warned of a “disturbing trend” of early closures of education and care facilities between March 2020 and December 2021.

“There is a clear urgency here that demands we take action,” Tarr said.

Top Senate Democrats portrayed the bill as an early education-focused counterpart to the Student Opportunity Act, a 2019 law that laid out a seven-year plan to overhaul K-12 public school funding with $1.5 billion in additional support.

Unlike that bill, however, the exact price tag and timeframe on the early education and care bill remains unclear. In introducing the bill last week, Senate leaders pointed to a special commission report that estimated it would cost “upwards of $1.5 billion annually over time” to implement the recommended changes.

On Thursday, the Senate shot down an amendment from Tarr that would have required the Department of Early Education and Care to report annually for five years on the costs needed to implement the bill.

Senators mostly agreed during Thursday’s session, but Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz made clear after voting for the measure that she saw it as “a long way away” from what families and childcare workers needed.

“This bill expresses a vision, but it makes no commitment to realize it. That’s why Ways & Means has no real cost estimate for the legislation — because it costs nothing,” Chang-Díaz wrote in a statement . posted on Twitter. “The bill creates three commissions and advisory boards, calls for eleven reports, and describes an aspiration, but does not ensure that any new child gets a seat in kindergarten or any new educator gets above poverty wages.”

“This bill is certainly better than nothing. But better than nothing is not the standard we should be holding ourselves to on Beacon Hill,” she added.

A tussle broke out during consideration of a Chang-Díaz amendment dealing with how the state would calculate operational grants for early education providers.

Chang-Díaz reformulated her amendment twice, and Sen. Will Brownsberger – who swung the gavel – ruled that the changes went too far outside the scope of the underlying amendment to keep the measure up for consideration.

In response, Chang-Díaz labeled the decision a “cheap parliamentary maneuver” to protect senators from a vote.

The bill now heads to the House, where top Democrats have already expressed skepticism about a “challenging timeline” to consider the major reforms and called on business leaders to come up with proposals for action in the 2023-2024 legislative session. to offer.

Sam Doran reported.

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