Early education board outlines investment priorities

More than 2,500 children would come off wait lists

BOSTON – As the Baker administration confronts a midyear budget gap, Massachusetts early education officials are proposing a fiscal year 2016 budget that aims to raise the salaries of early educators and get more children off pre-school wait lists while also boosting funding for universal pre-kindergarten.

The Board of Early Education and Care voted Tuesday to approve the budget recommendation, which asks for about $594 million in state and federal funds, a roughly 9.5 percent increase from this year. The majority of the early education budget is made up from federal reimbursements. In fiscal year 2015, the Department of Early Education and Care received about $542 million in state and federal funds.

The budget proposal will now be submitted to Education Secretary James Peyser as he helps Gov. Charlie Baker draft his first annual state budget.

The early education budget proposal asks for a 4 percent rate increase for educators. The median annual salary for educators in family child care programs ranges from $25,000 to $27,500. For center-based child care the median annual salary is $22,500 to $25,000.

Members of the board said bumping the salaries of early educators is crucial to hiring qualified people and keeping them, something that is difficult to do at current rates. During a public hearing held in October, the board heard repeatedly from people who said early education teachers are underpaid, and turnover is high because of the low salaries.

“Salaries we pay providers are, frankly, shameful for what we ask of the providers,” Jay Gonzalez, the chair of the Board of Early Education and Care, said during the meeting Tuesday. “They result in a lack of retention in an industry where we need good quality educators to stay committed in this field.”

Board member Sharon Scott-Chandler said she wishes the state could do more to compensate early education teachers “because not only do they move on to the public schools, but they move on to the drive-thrus at McDonalds because we are not paying them.”

Early education officials said they could decrease the number of children on waiting lists for pre-school programs with an additional $15 million for child care and early education subsidies for low-income families.

More than 2,500 children would come off wait lists, according to the board’s budget presentation. In fiscal 2015, the department received a $15 million increase for the same line item.

Currently, more than 23,000 children are on waiting lists for subsidized pre-school and child care programs, down from nearly 40,000, according to early education officials.

The budget also recommends a $2 million increase to expand universal pre-kindergarten programs.

Gonzalez said the state has an early education system that “serves some of our kids who need it, but not all of our kids who need it.”

Gonzalez, who previously served as secretary of administration and finance under Gov. Deval Patrick, said he asked the board to think “unconstrained” about what they hoped to see for early education, while also recognizing the state is currently facing a budget deficit.

Early Education and Care Commissioner Thomas Weber said there was more board involvement and public engagement when this budget was developed than in previous years, and it makes immediate investments, as well as sets long-term goals.

The budget also creates a tiered reimbursement rate structure by fiscal 18 that would use an incentive system for early education and care programs, known as the Quality Rating and Improvement System.

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