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Early childhood education and care are bedrocks of the Commonwealth’s economy. Working parents rely on them to balance family and work responsibilities, and children require the kind of “smart start” these programs provide to attain the education and skill levels they will need to fill the jobs in our technology-driven economy.
The average salary of qualified early educators, often with advanced degrees, is $12.10 per hour. Many of them can earn more as a restaurant hostess.
As the House and Senate weigh a final version of the state’s spending plan for the next year, our elected officials cannot overlook the critical need for high-quality early education and care and out-of-school time programs, as well as living wages for the educators on which these programs rely. The average salary of qualified early educators, often with advanced degrees, is $12.10 per hour. Many of them can earn more as a restaurant hostess. With a turnover rate of nearly 30 percent as a result, quality and consistency become increasingly difficult to maintain.
But thus far in the debate over early childhood education in Massachusetts, the focus has been on addressing a shortage of early education and care seats. This is important, but what good is increased access to early childhood education without quality programs and teachers incentivized to stay in them?
Across the state, there are more than 8,800 early education and care programs employing more than 40,000 people, with combined revenues of $1.5 billion. But that’s down from 11,600 programs in 2012, a decline of more than 20 percent. And those programs are stretched to the limit, with many centers closing due to lack of structural support from the state. In fact, over the past 15 years, early education and out-of-school-time programs have lost more than $114 million in state funding, adjusting for inflation, while K-12 funding has increased by over $400 million.
This failure to support early education and care and out-of-school time has resulted in a frayed system that undermines our schools and our economy. As a new study by the National Institute for Early Education Research shows, Massachusetts meets just six of 10 quality standards for early education programs, scoring high on early learning standards standards, class size and monitoring, and low on teacher training, degree requirements and providing meals to children. State funding per child for pre-K — $7,159 per student in 2002 – was just $3,693 in 2014, dropping Massachusetts from 8th to 25th among the 50 states and putting us behind West Virginia, Arkansas and Alabama.
Meanwhile, Massachusetts squandered its ranking as first in the nation for access to state-funded pre-school for 3-year-olds in 2002. By 2014, the state’s ranking had fallen to 18th place. The state’s ranking for similar access for 4-years olds dropped from 15th to 28th over the same period.
House and Senate budget negotiators have an opportunity to reverse the trend by earmarking new funds to support quality improvements in early childhood and out-of-school-time programs. The House-Senate budget committee must adopt the House initiative to invest $4 million in quality and salary increases to stabilize the early education workforce.
Only 48 percent of poor children are ready for school at age 5, compared to 75 percent of children from families with moderate and high incomes.
As we learn more about the rapid brain development that occurs from birth through the first years of life, and the gaps that develop in those years between low-income children and their more affluent peers, we need to expand our thinking about education from a K-12 focus to a birth-12 focus. By the ages of 3, 4 and 5, children have either started down the path of learning essential literacy and math skills, or they have not.
Statistics show that children in families with low incomes, largely in urban areas, do not get the start they need to succeed in school and in life. Only 48 percent of poor children are ready for school at age 5, compared to 75 percent of children from families with moderate and high incomes.
Massachusetts has an opportunity to renew its commitment to our earliest learners and the men and women who educate them. Let’s hope that the Legislature will make good on its professed commitment to early education. The Conference Committee must direct additional funding to strengthen the state’s current programs and its teacher base.