A Littleton mother said that her yearly child-care bill for two children was $47,000 — for only four days a week. A college professor said her early education students routinely switch majors or seek jobs in public schools after learning how little they will earn in child care. And the chief executive officer of a construction company said she became “chief child-care coordinator” during the pandemic, helping her employees cobble together care near their homes and even opening her company’s doors to their children.
The wide range of speakers who testified before Beacon Hill lawmakers Tuesday were united in their support for legislation called “Common Start,” which would limit what families have to pay for child care and boost the low wages of child-care employees. Supporters say the measure would help more women rejoin the labor market after leaving their jobs to care for their children during the pandemic.
“We need to come to terms with the fact that we are free-riding on the backs of women,” said state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Boston Democrat who is running for governor.
During a virtual hearing of the Joint Committee on Education, child-care providers and advocates joined lawmakers in calling for systemic changes to an industry known for its harsh economic imbalance. Massachusetts has some of the highest child-care costs in the nation, yet the state’s child-care workers earn a median salary of $37,000 a year, barely a living wage for someone with children.
Sarah Sian, governing board president of the Massachusetts Association for the Education of Young Children, said that high costs are driven in part by state regulations that limit the number of children a single teacher can manage.
“More teachers per young child raises the quality of care for our young children, but also drives up costs,” she said. “The Common Start Bill would provide a stable, sustainable source of funding to pay living wages for teachers at quality ratios.”
The legislation would, for the first time, treat early education as a common good and pay for it with public funds, like K-12 public schools. That would require a massive infusion of taxpayer funds that the bill does not provide, but proponents hope that a federal spending package could supply instead.
The US House of Representatives on Friday passed a $2.2 trillion social policy and climate change package that would lavish child-care aid on states. Though its passage is very uncertain in the Senate, the Build Back Better legislation could deliver Massachusetts some $1.3 billion in child-care funds, according to Mark Reilly, vice president of policy and government relations at Jumpstart for Young Children, a national organization that works to improve early education.
“You may be wondering: If Congress passes the Build Back Better bill, do we really need the Common Start bill?” Reilly said at the hearing. He said yes because the state measure provides a specific framework for a revamped early education system, which would rely on federal funds.
“Rather than be unprepared for the arrival of billions over the next few years without a clear plan, let’s adopt the policy framework of Common Start now so we can be thoughtful stewards of these resources and hit the ground running,” he said.
The Common Start legislation aims to cap what families now pay for child care to 7 percent of their annual income. The bill aims to phase in more families based on need over five years, but passage of the federal spending package could dramatically accelerate that time frame.
No one spoke in opposition to the bill at the hearing. Senator Jason Lewis, the committee chairman, said in an interview after the hearing that he hoped the bill will be voted out of committee early next year and that it will receive a vote in the full Legislature before the session closes in July.
“We’re seeing a growing momentum for taking really bold action in the early education and child-care space,” Lewis said. “We’re seeing these conversations at the state level and, of course, we’re also seeing them at the federal level as well.”
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“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Massachusetts to take a quantum leap or two on some of the things that voters have been telling Beacon Hill for a long time that they want to see us do,” Chang-Díaz said.
Long-awaited measure includes crackdown on local fees, funding for equity