If Boston Is to Truly Recover from the Pandemic, We Must Invest in our Ailing Early Education System

September 17, 2021

By: Kristin McSwain, Executive Director, Boston Opportunity Agenda
Elizabeth Pauley, Associate Vice President, Education to Career, the Boston Foundation
and Karley Ausiello, Sr. Vice President, Community Impact, United Way of Mass Bay and the Merrimack Valley

Note: This post is adapted from testimony given to the City of Boston’s Equitable Recovery Task Force on September 15.

It’s hard to fathom, but it is now officially more than 18 months since the beginning of the business shutdowns, school closings and other disruptions that marked the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The days and weeks since March 2020 have placed unprecedented burdens on our early education system - and as the city and region invest in the challenging climb to an equitable recovery, our experience and our data point to a simple message. That there can be no equitable recovery without an intentional and sizable investment in the early childcare workforce.

Early education is essential infrastructure for a healthy economy. COVID-19 revealed to the entire country what the early education and care field has known for years: Childcare is the backbone of our economy. According to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, the heavy loss of women in the workforce over this past year, including those who have stopped seeking employment, is due to the drop in childcare capacity in the Commonwealth, and yet women’s labor force participation is a key driver to economic growth.

Boston’s investment of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds must address the long-standing and worsening shortage of childcare, by investing in the educators who lead and staff childcare classrooms. There is a long standing need to create a stable, justly compensated and well-trained workforce. In 2017, for example, one third of families in Boston did not have access to the childcare they wanted. The pandemic made it worse. According to a 2021 analysis from the Boston Opportunity Agenda, between December 2017 to March 2021, Boston experienced a 21% decrease in the number of licensed center-based and family child care providers. The result? Almost half of Boston’s families that are seeking child care can’t find it.

The latest report from the Boston Opportunity Agenda's Birth to Eight Collaborative lays out the current shortfall in early education seats for Boston families
Read the report

Driving this shortage is the lack of childcare staff to keep childcare classrooms open and thriving in centers and family child care. Without a strategy to stabilize the workforce, this shortage will continue to slow the citywide recovery from COVID-19. An investment in this sector is an investment in women of color and immigrants who have born a disproportionate burden during the pandemic. The early education workforce is widely diverse with 47% identifying as Hispanic/Latinx, 22% as Black and African American and 9% as Asian. In a 2019 survey from University Massachusetts Boston, 40% of center-based educators reported worrying about having enough money for food, 67% report not being able to pay monthly bills, 33% of educators report using at least one public benefit on a yearly basis. Early educators are among the most vital workers in the City of Boston’s social infrastructure, but many remain in precarious economic circumstances that threaten to push them out of the field and consign them to a life of poverty.

Investment of ARPA funding in the following ways will expand the availability of quality childcare and help our city recover from COVID while continuing to build a robust system to support employers, young children and families.

  • Expand the City of Boston Childcare Entrepreneur Fund, supported by the Mayor’s Office of Women’s Advancement which strengthens family childcare by providing mini grants of up to $2,500 to make childcare improvements and business training for providers.

  • Expand other small business supports to childcare providers, in partnership with the United Way’s Shared Services initiative and the City of Boston small business development initiatives. An investment in expanding ongoing training, technical assistance, peer support and mentorship will support these small business leaders. Additional supports should also include, but not be limited to, wage support, rent relief, technology support, small business loans, etc.

  • Support the existing childcare workforce, both center-based and family childcare, by using funds to augment teacher compensation or provide loan forgiveness to help build a sustainable local workforce that is compensated fairly for their important work. This could be modeled on the UPK endowment or the Tuition Free Community College programs already established by the city.

  • Invest in attracting new talent to the childcare workforce. With the Office of Workforce Development, MassHire, institutions of higher education and others, build employment pathways including those from parent leadership and development programs to full-time positions across the early childhood ecosystem. Seek out and replicate promising pilot programs such as the CARE 2 Institute and JVS’s Childcare Talent Pipeline aimed at increasing the number of teaching assistants.

  • Meet the needs of our essential workers who do not hold traditional working hours by providing financial incentives to centers and FCCs to remain open during non traditional work hours. For the sizable number of parents on the night shift or with unpredictable schedules and wages, child care is a major weak point and source of stress and instability. In concert with increasing the supply of child care offered at nontraditional hours, there is also aneed to lift up best practices for care for evening and overnight programs.

  • Expand implementation of development screenings in childcare by building on the emergency ARPA funding already approved so that all children in Boston are screened and connected to services. Research proves screening is an essential first step toward identifying children with delays or disorders in the critical early years, before they start school. Screening also equips early educators with the information that they require to meet a wide variety of needs.

Childcare infrastructure has proven itself to be critical to the sectors of education, public health and the city’s economy. Yet not all families can access this critical infrastructure. The Baker-Polito Administration’s “Future of Work” report released in July 2021 surveyed Massachusetts families and found that 13 percent of respondents with children said they might resume working or enter the workforce if they had access to additional childcare. Whether in Massachusetts or Boston, our economy cannot afford to leave 13 percent of working families on the sidelines of the economy, solely due to lack of childcare. As parents in Boston return to the workplace in person, it is critical that the city of Boston focus time, attention and resources (including ARPA funding) on increasing the number of high quality childcare seats available to families in the city of Boston.