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Senate passes bill to embark on major early ed changes

Most child care centers, like this one in Waltham, closed down in March 2020 as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
(Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Senators voted unanimously Thursday on a sweeping reform bill aimed at aiding child care and early education providers, fortifying the pipeline of workers entering that field, and helping more families access a costly service vital to their economic success.

After a string of speeches laser-focused on the importance of connecting more Bay Staters with quality, affordable care, the Senate approved a bill (S 2973) seeking a years-long expansion of subsidies for early education, pay and benefits for workers in the field, and permanent grants for child care providers.

"Very few bills we debate have the potential for impacts as great as this bill," said Education Committee Co-chair Sen. Jason Lewis.

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

Under current law, only households who earn 50 percent or less of the state 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 median income, a level representing about $164,005 annually for a household of four.

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

"We are helping to ensure an equal start to life. That's how I think about this bill," said Sen. Jo Comerford, a Northampton Democrat.

Needham Sen. Becca Rausch said Massachusetts has "the highest child care costs in the whole country right 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 for the economy by freeing more parents and especially women, who disproportionately bear the weight of child care 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 advocated for action to address early education and care needs, called the bill a "win-win situation."

"It's the right thing to do for our economy and it's the moral thing to do," Rowe said. "Without access to affordable, high-quality early education and child care, parents and other caregivers are either unable to work, or they struggle to balance jobs with caring for their children. Our entire economy is suffering due to the lack of early education and child care options. This bill will be a major 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 tiers.

The industry has long struggled with attracting and retaining staff, and the pandemic exacerbated those challenges. Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr warned of a "disturbing trend" of early education and care facility closures 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, though, the exact price tag and timeframe on the early education and care bill remain unclear. When they rolled out the bill last week, Senate leaders pointed to a special commission report estimating it would cost "upwards of $1.5 billion annually over time" to implement its recommended changes.

The Senate on Thursday 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 required to implement the bill.

Senators were mostly in agreement over the course of Thursday's session, but Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz made clear after voting for the measure that she views it as "a long way away" from what families and child care workers need.

"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 doesn't cost anything," Chang-Díaz wrote in a statement she posted to Twitter. "The bill creates three commissions and advisory councils, calls for eleven reports, and describes an aspiration, but does not ensure any new child gets a seat in preschool or any new educator gets above poverty wages."

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

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

Chang-Díaz redrafted her amendment twice, and Sen. Will Brownsberger — who was wielding the gavel — ruled that the changes went too far beyond the scope of the underlying amendment to keep the measure eligible for consideration.

In response, Chang-Díaz slammed the decision as a "cheap parliamentary maneuver" to shield senators from taking a vote.

The bill heads now to the House, where top Democrats have already voiced skepticism about a "challenging timeline" to consider the major reforms and called for business leaders to offer suggestions for action in the 2023-2024 legislative session.

Sam Doran contributed reporting.

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