Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Child care affordability is a crisis in Massachusetts. Gov. Maura Healey said that herself in her inaugural speech early this year. But on Aug. 9, she slashed funds in the 2024 fiscal year budget that would provide higher wages to our early child care educators, undermining her very own goal of making child care more accessible. Healey vetoed $1 million in funding for Head Start State Supplemental Grants and slashed $35 million in salary rate funding for center-based early educators in programs that work with low-income and at-risk children. These cuts reflect a harmful and pervasive attitude that has guided our state and federal budgets for too long: that despite the pivotal role they play in families’ lives and in our statewide economy, the work of our early childhood educators can and will continue to be de-prioritized and underfunded. This decision undermines the value and respect for educators serving our youngest learners, and it narrows the opportunities for support available to our most vulnerable families.

This year, Cambridge Day shared our letter discussing racial equality in early childhood education (“We need to think about early education as a racial equity issue,” Feb. 21). One of the most striking inequities was the comparatively low wages of preschool teachers, and one of the most urgently needed solutions was to fund higher wages for our early educators, especially Head Start teachers. Head Start teachers are oftentimes highly qualified with multiple degrees, and yet they earn just $39,520 annually, on average. Decades of under-funding in state and federal budgets have caused stagnant Head Start staff salaries that fail to meet the basic needs of our educators, a workforce made up largely of Black and Latina women. The Massachusetts Head Start Association’s most recent workforce survey in April found that Head Start programs are operating at an 18% staff vacancy rate, and 67% of statewide programs say that their staff are leaving for higher wages elsewhere. This shortage of educators due to low pay is driving up the costs of early childhood education across the state. The funding that was vetoed plays a key role in compensating our teachers – more than 90 percent of grant funds go to wage and salary support for Head Start staff. 

Affordable child care is important for the entire community, as it allows children to develop the vital skills that set them up for academic success and allows parents to stay in the workforce. But what makes Head Start programs uniquely essential are their family support services, which extend far beyond the classroom. Eligible Head Start families earn less than the Federal Poverty Guidelines – currently just $30,000 for a family of four. In the 2021-2022 program year, Head Start programs across Massachusetts served 1,047 children from families experiencing homelessness and 470 children in foster care. And by enrolling their children in Head Start, families are able to get a wide range of wraparound services that help meet their needs and develop the tools and skills to work toward financial stability. 

Last year, the Community Action Agency of Somerville Head Start program served more than 200 children in Cambridge and Somerville. In the same year, 100 parents got emergency and crisis intervention services to meet immediate needs for food, clothing or shelter. Many households have relied on our services for rental assistance, utility assistance and eviction prevention, allowing families to stay in the community and serve as the essential workers that keep our city functioning. Parents were able to access English as a Second Language courses, job training programs and counseling services, all of which help set families on the path toward higher-paying wages. But like other Head Start programs across the state, CAAS is struggling to retain teachers. Without enough teachers in our classrooms, enrollment wait lists keep families from being able to access these crucial services and supports.

Unfortunately, Head Start is also facing a crisis in Washington, D.C. The U.S. House Appropriations Committee has recommended a 6.25% cut for Head Start in the federal 2024 fiscal year budget, which would devastate Head Start programs, forcing layoffs and elimination of services for vulnerable children and families. This additional cut by Healey would add devastation to devastation, forcing painful decisions at our program to eliminate services in order to pay staff closer to what they deserve. 

We remain grateful for the Legislature’s investments in our workforce in its budget. These cuts cannot stand.

Alex Barbat, The Community Action Agency of Somerville

Alex Barbat is communications manager at The Community Action Agency of Somerville, a federally designated anti-poverty agency serving Somerville since 1981.