New Boston Opportunity Agenda report highlights continued gaps in access to quality, affordable early education and care in Boston

Overall numbers stable since the pandemic, but significant gaps in availability persist, especially for younger children and across neighborhoods

May 3, 2023

Cover photo for Boston Opportunity Agenda report titled Rebuilding Boston's Early Education and Care Sector: Supply, Affordability and Quality Needed. The cover features a photo of a young girl playing with toysBoston – A new data analysis of early education and care seats in the city of Boston finds a continuing lack of affordable quality care in the city, especially for younger children, even as millions of dollars of public investment have helped stabilize the sector post-pandemic. In a new report entitled (Re)Building Boston’s Early Education and Care Sector: Supply, Affordability and Quality Needed, researchers from the Boston Opportunity Agenda, the Birth to Eight Collaborative, and the City of Boston’s Office of Early Childhood found that while citywide numbers suggest enough seats exist to meet the needs of families with 3-to-5-year-old children, there are still wide differences in availability across neighborhoods. For families seeking infant and toddler care, the research suggests wide gaps between potential demand and availability throughout Boston.

“The new data provide evidence that the millions of dollars invested in early education and care during the pandemic helped arrest an alarming drop in available seats,” said M. Lee Pelton, President and CEO of the Boston Foundation and Chair of the Boston Opportunity Agenda. “But they also illustrate the continuing challenge that providers face in finding staff, and the startling lack of available seats for our youngest children across the city – especially in neighborhoods away from the downtown core.”

Staffing shortages exacerbate stress on providers

The report begins with an overview of child population trends in the city, using the number of children aged 0-5 as a base for determining potential demand. The report estimates 39,992 children under 5 living in the city as of 2020, compared with an inventory of 24,276 seats in childcare and school providers citywide – a total further constrained by a childcare workforce shortage that keeps some centers from being able to use their full capacity. The report notes that as of 2021, Massachusetts had almost 5,000 fewer early educators, on average, than before the pandemic, with estimated one-in-three centers unable to serve their full capacity statewide.

Breaking down the data to look at seats for infants and children up to age 2 versus seats for children aged 3-5 highlights another gap – only 5,161 of the 24,276 education and care seats in Boston (21 percent) serve the younger age group, with the percentage in many neighborhoods even lower. As a result, infant and toddler seats are available for just 1-in-4 children in the city. Whereas seven of 15 Boston neighborhoods had, on paper, more seats for 3- to 5-year-olds than children in that age group, every neighborhood had a shortage of infant and toddler seats, ranging from 35 percent in Fenway/Kenmore to between 81 and 86 percent in Roslindale, Mattapan, East Boston, Charlestown, Dorchester, and Hyde Park.

Finding – and even defining – high-quality care remains a challenge

While access to care is critical, research shows that the quality of that care is what benefits a child’s long-term school and life outcomes. The City of Boston has made high-quality seats a core tenet of the city’s Universal Pre-K program, and other centers, schools and FCCs (family childcare centers) use a number of accreditation standards to demonstrate quality. But finding high-quality care remains a challenge at all age levels.

For younger age groups, however, where there is no central authority on quality, the lack of a consistent standard, along with the time and cost of accreditation, limits the number of centers seeking out accreditations. In addition, the quality gap in the youngest classrooms highlights the lack of available funding to recruit and expand the workforce, lower teacher-student ratios, reduce extended working hours and provide more robust professional development to improve child outcomes. As a result, while Boston faces a 42 percent ‘quality gap’ in seats for 3- to-5-year-olds, the gap is 95 percent for those two and under. Two neighborhoods (Mattapan and Roslindale) had no quality seats for this age group identified by the methodology. While the complexity of the process plays a role, the quality gap in the youngest classrooms also highlights the lack of available funding to recruit and expand the workforce to lower teacher-student ratios, reduce extended working hours and provide more robust professional development to improve child outcomes.

“Expanding our early education and care system requires significant investments to attract new teachers and professional development to give them more rewarding careers,” said Kristin McSwain, Senior Advisor for Early Childhood and Director of the Mayor's Office of Early Childhood. “If we are to demonstrably improve our infant care options for working families, training a larger number of infant-certified teachers is a must – as is creating a shared definition of quality.”

The impact of COVID funding on childcare programs

Lastly, the report also looked at the impact of two public funding streams - child-care financial assistance (subsidies), which are paid to centers on a per-child basis, and Commonwealth Cares for Children (C3) grants, which were introduced in September 2021 to provide operational and workforce support – on the ability of centers to weather the COVID-19 pandemic. Did the funding matter, and if so, did C3 grants or subsidies have a more significant impact?

The report looked at 62 licensed providers who closed permanently between March 2021 and June 2022. Of those that closed before C3 grants became available in September 2021, 74 percent did not receive public funding. Of those which closed after September 2021, 68 percent received no public funding, and another 16 percent received per-child subsidies but no C3 money. Currently, only 39 (about six percent) of centers in Boston receive no state funding. Of those that do, just ten take only the per-child subsidy payments, suggesting providers count on the C3 grants for needed stability.

Policy recommendations

Considering access, quality and affordability for caregivers and stability for providers and early education and care workers, the authors close with a series of policy recommendations that could strengthen early education and care in Boston. The recommendations include: 

  • Advocating for increased and sustained public investment in the early education and care field.
  • Continuing to invest in and expand Universal Pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds.
  • Building on UPK’s work, creating a Boston initiative for infants and toddlers that expands access to high-quality care.
  • Leveraging the new City of Boston’s Office of Early Childhood to define indicators and house data for tracking and improving Boston’s early education and care field, and advancing equity in data collection, access, and utilization to create a robust data system.
  • Coordinating with state-level advocacy to help fund and sustain city-level efforts.

“These recommendations, if implemented, would help address the access, funding, and quality questions that make the future so unclear for the early education and care sector in Boston,” said Amy O’Leary, Executive Director of Strategies for Children. “Considering how much we know about the long-term impact of quality early education, it is an investment in the Commonwealth’s future we can’t afford to ignore.”