Early Childhood 101

The pandemic has laid bare the challenges with, and our society’s reliance on, early education and care. When early childhood providers were forced to close in 2020, our youngest children missed out on vital learning opportunities and many parents—especially women—were forced to leave the workforce. These closures gave parents, policy makers, and business leaders a heightened awareness of what the education community has known for years: early education and care is critical and should be accessible to all families.

There’s decades of data on the profound impact high-quality early education has on our youngest learners. These warm environments give children the chance to learn life skills and independence while developing socially and emotionally, setting them on a path to success in school and in life. But, with an average cost of more than $20,000 for infants and $15,000 for 4-year-olds, early education and care is inaccessible for too many families in Massachusetts. And while subsidies are available for some families, the percentage of children under 5 eligible for financial assistance and enrolled in a high-quality early education program has been decreasing since 2015. The pandemic has only made things worse: 17 percent of early education and care programs have closed over the past two years. Meanwhile, Massachusetts childcare workers earn, on average, less than a third of what kindergarten teachers earn. With minimal public funding, the current financial model for this system is not working.

While COVID-19 exacerbated these challenges, the struggle to make high-quality early education accessible is nothing new. For decades, advocates have been pushing for systemic changes and public funding to make early education an option for all families. So why are we talking about it now?

Because COVID-19 put the challenges of the early education and care system front and center for many decision-makers, now is a unique moment in time where change is possible. The pandemic led the Massachusetts Legislature to form a special Early Education and Care Economic Review Commission, which recently released a report recommending a $1.5 billion investment in early education. The report includes a number of recommendations to support families (such as increasing subsidy reimbursement rates and raising the threshold for income eligibility for subsidies), assist providers (such as reimbursing programs serving subsidized children based on enrollment rather than attendance), and benefit early educators (such as using grants and rate increases to raise wages and exploring options for tuition forgiveness programs).

The increased attention on early childhood goes well beyond this legislation. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu recently formed a new Office of Early Childhood. A number of states, including our neighbor Rhode Island, are discussing plans for universal Pre-K. And on the national front, President Biden made expanding access to preschool a focus of his recent State of the Union address.

Attention on this issue is coming from all policy levels, and with good reason. If we want to address the inequities highlighted and exacerbated by the pandemic, we need to take a close look at our approach to early childhood support. This goes beyond early education. This means healthcare for our youngest children and other programs like Early Intervention that support infants and toddlers. What key investments can be made to support parents—especially low-income parents and parents of color who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic—in getting back into the workforce? What strategies can we harness to make sure all students are able to access critical early learning opportunities and developmental support? What is and isn’t working in our system now, and how can we best utilize new infusions of funds to give all children a strong start?

To find the answers to these questions and more, the Massachusetts Early Childhood Funder Collaborative has chosen the Rennie Center to create an innovative statewide early childhood landscape map and data overview. We know the current ecosystem of supports for young children is complex and hard to understand, which has led to inaction in policy and funding as well as confusion for parents. By mapping and describing the landscape for children 5 and under, we hope to help a larger audience understand where and how to support Massachusetts’ youngest children. Through this project, known as “EC 101,” we will illuminate key programs and projects not just in education but also in health, early intervention, and other fields, with the goal of developing a clear, accessible understanding of the current systems and opportunities for impactful policy action.

We are just in the beginning phases of this project, but we hope it can be a part of this larger movement to find solutions for equitably supporting the youngest among us. Stay tuned for more information, graphics, and data as this project unfolds!