Case Study: Care in Massachusetts

Photo: Long Story Short Media

Working Hard for Poverty Wages

“Money has been a constant struggle,” says Kim Silva of her 30 years as an early education teacher in Massachusetts. “One unexpected expense can put you in the hole for months.”

Silva, 46, is the lead teacher in a preschool classroom at NorthStar, a child care center in New Bedford. NorthStar largely serves children whose parents’ income is low enough that they are eligible to receive financial subsidies from the state to help pay for care. Silva has worked there since she was 15, moving from aide to teacher to lead teacher. Yet after more than three decades, she makes only $11.91 an hour. That’s $25,000 a year.

Silva speaks with an unqualified passion for the work she does. But she is also a single mother who has scraped and scrambled to support herself and raise her daughter, now 21, on an early educator’s salary. Like the majority of early childhood educators, Silva exists on near-poverty wages, on par with fast food cooks and bartenders, making less than bellhops, janitors, and parking attendants. The Department of Labor still groups most child care workers with personal service providers such as valets, butlers and fitness trainers  rather than other education-related occupations.

The Department of Labor still groups most child care workers with personal service providers such as valets, butlers and fitness trainers  rather than other education-related occupations.

Silva pays $841 a month to live in a low-income housing development in New Bedford. “It is not a good area,” she says. When her daughter was growing up, “there were gunshots. There were drugs. I had to make sure my daughter was always involved in something to keep her busy and safe.”

Her daughter attended NorthStar, where Silva paid on a sliding scale. But even that sometimes proved too much. There were times when finances were so lean that she and her daughter had to move in with her mother. “There were months of cable on, cable off, electric on, electric off,” she recalls, her eyes  swelling with tears. “It got to a point where I had to choose between rent or sending my daughter to daycare. So we left our home so she could get an education.”

Silva has always been on food stamps. Most recently she was receiving $33 a month in food benefits, which dropped to $16 a month when she got a raise after earning her bachelor’s degree. That’s enough to cover milk, cereal, and bread. About one-third of Silva’s paycheck goes towards health insurance, which, for many years, was a necessity to cover her daughter’s ADHD medication.

“Don’t tell me we don’t subsidize child care in the United States,” said Mary Brown, who has spent 30 years as a child care center director and child care consultant. “We do. It’s the teachers, mostly women, who’ve been subsidizing child care all along.”

To afford even basics like food and clothing, rent and utilities, Silva has needed to take on additional jobs on the weekends. She works as a personal care assistant—cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and running errands—positions that, at $13.68 an hour, pay more than her job as a lead teacher.

Silva’s experience in Massachusetts reflects that of an entire nation of child care workers. The median hourly wage for child care workers is $9.77 an hour, which places them in only the second percentile of wage earners when all professions are ranked, making it one of the lowest paid professions in the country. Close to one-half (46 percent) of child care workers, compared to about one-quarter (26 percent) of the total U.S. workforce, are on public assistance. Low wages can lead to high teacher burnout, high levels of teacher stress, and high teacher turnover—the national turnover rate for child care workers is 13 percent, significantly higher than the 3.4 percent turnover rate for all non-farm jobs. All of this compromises the consistency of care parents require and the quality of care children need.

“Don’t tell me we don’t subsidize child care in the United States,” said Mary Brown, who has spent 30 years as a child care center director and child care consultant. “We do. It’s the teachers, mostly women, who’ve been subsidizing child care all along.”

The High Cost of Child Care

Despite the very real struggles of Silva and child care workers like her in the state, Massachusetts actually ranked in the top quartile of states in the Care Index. Massachusetts measures near the top in quality and availability in comparison to other states. Though quality is difficult to measure, 38 percent of centers and family homes are nationally accredited for quality, one of the higher rates in the country. And indeed, Massachusetts has made positive moves towards improving its early care and education system. It was one of the first states to form a dedicated Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) so child care could be monitored and funded as an aspect of education. They have had a Quality Rating and Improvement System in place since 2011, setting guidelines for what the state believes comprises high quality child care.

However, The Care Index found that the cost of child care in the state is extremely high, averaging $13,208 a year in child care establishments, nearly equal to the average cost of rent in the state, even as the caregivers still earn poverty wages. The cost for infants is even higher—$16,682 a year, more than a quarter of the state’s median household income, and nearly 90 percent of a minimum wage workers’ earnings. This high cost presents serious challenges to parents struggling to pay for care, and to providers, who often operate on paper-thin margins to survive.

That it may have one of the most successful early care and learning systems in the country says more about what’s lacking in the rest of the country than what’s thriving in Massachusetts, a state with a still-struggling system. It is indicative of the nationwide state of child care that neither the providers nor the parents nor the teachers feel it works well for anyone.

That it may have one of the most successful early care and learning systems in the country says more about what’s lacking in the rest of the country than what’s thriving in Massachusetts, a state with a still-struggling system.

It certainly doesn’t work well financially for those like Kim Silva, who has spent her entire adult life learning to want less and compromise more. She acknowledges that on some days it is difficult to leave her financial stress at the door and fully engage with the classroom, and that she has to dig deep inside herself to find a way. But despite all the hardship and financial sacrifice, Silva can’t imagine doing any other kind of work. She loves her job and her bonus, she says, comes from the children she teaches.

“I remind myself that I am so lucky to go to a job every day, knowing I am doing the most important work there is.”

A Struggling Workforce

In 2015, the median wage for child care workers in Massachusetts was $12.01/hr. Thirty-nine percent of the state’s child care workers are on public assistance. In addition, the state reimbursement rate to providers who accept children qualifying for subsidies remains significantly lower than the 75th percentile recommended by the federal government. These rates have a huge impact on what local providers who take any subsidized children can pay their teachers and on the quality of education they are thus able to provide.

Statistics like these have made it more and more difficult to draw teachers into the field and get them to stick around. “When the state pays deflated rates, it basically forces programs to balance the books on the backs of their employees,” said William J. Eddy, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Early Education and Care.

In Massachusetts, near-poverty-level pay combined with the state’s low unemployment rate has created a severe shortage of qualified teachers. Silva is the model of dedication to her profession, but she herself acknowledges that it is untenable to demand of the next generation of teachers or the next generation of parents what was demanded of her. “We are definitely in a crisis situation here. If not for me, then for them,” she said. “Something has to change.”

Silva’s observation echoes the feelings of many educators, advocates, and providers in the state, all of whom recognize that without qualified teachers there is no early education system at all. In recent years in Massachusetts, much of the energy around reforming child care has focused on creating better conditions for this struggling workforce.

Incremental Change

One of the most powerful voices for early care and learning teachers has been that of Marie St. Fleur, a Haitian-American with deep personal and professional ties to early education. St. Fleur began her career in the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office working on welfare reform, and as a criminal prosecutor, where she encountered firsthand what can happen to children who are denied basic needs like a stable home life and a decent education, beginning with early care.

As she became enmeshed in raising her own children and navigating a career that took her to the state legislature, where she served as the vice-chair of the Ways and Means committee, St. Fleur’s commitment to affordable, high-quality early education grew.

“I came to understand the challenges to the generation of women who are supposed to somehow do it all with no infrastructure there,” she explains. “ It’s shameful, but society still has not figured out how to deal with this issue.”

In 2014, St. Fleur, now the president and CEO of the Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children, became the driving force behind the Put Massachusetts Kids First Coalition. The coalition is a group of over 70—and growing—organizations from across the state that came together with the hope of strengthening and stabilizing the early education workforce.

“We had to make the legislature understand that they cannot simply ignore the workforce who are building our next generation,” says St. Fleur.

The coalition began advocating for a rate reserve (an increase in the rate paid by the state) for programs receiving public funds, with the understanding that this reserve would be used to increase teacher pay. They were not pushing for radical transformation of the child care economy, though St. Fleur admits that is what is needed to truly mend what is broken. Teachers in facilities that do not accept children who receive subsidies would not be impacted at all by a rate reserve. But St. Fleur knew it was a crucial start that could stabilize the workforce and potentially free up resources for future, more expansive change.

The coalition also realized that the time had come not only to advocate for, but to engage and empower the workforce. Teachers began organizing, writing and calling legislators and, in December 2015, a group of them came to an Early Education and Care board meeting in Boston to testify about the details of their financial lives. Some, like Kim Silva, had been seeking these changes for 20 years. Others had just arrived in  the field and were already weighing whether they could afford to stay.

“We need a better model, one that is going to work for all the children in every community.” 

Although the Coalition initially asked for an investment of $40 million, the state allotted only about a quarter of that, $12.5 million, in the 2017 budget. For Marie St. Fleur, the hope is that this partial success story can serve as a critical wake-up call regarding the crippled state of the entire child care economy.

“We need a better model, one that is going to work for all the children in every community,” reflects St. Fleur. “It’s a big conversation but I think we are ready to have it. There’s momentum now. We need to seize it. If we blink, who knows when we'll have another chance.”

The Struggle for Providers

The teachers in Massachusetts are not the only ones feeling the pressures from lack of funding. Child care centers that accept even a portion of children who receive government subsidies have been forced to shut down classrooms, reduce staff, and strip benefits from workers just to keep their doors open.

“Things are the most financially precarious anyone can ever remember,” says Wayne Ysaguirre, president and CEO of Nurtury Boston, a child care center serving 1,200 children, 98 percent of whom are subsidized by the state. “And if an organization our size is feeling this, imagine the pressure on the smaller ones just to stay open.”

For larger centers like Nurtury, which form the backbone of the state’s subsidized care system, remaining financially viable has required remarkable ingenuity—combining state and federal resources, nonprofit grants, and often extensive fundraising. No center wants to close classrooms or underpay teachers.

“It’s a crisis situation,” confirms Ysaguirre. “The opportunities for children, for parents, for staff are all shrinking.”

Two years ago, Nurtury opened a state-of-the-art center in a public housing facility in Boston. They had seven infant rooms, with families able to pay full tuition lining up for spots. But the center was unable to fill the rooms because they couldn’t find qualified lead teachers with bachelor’s degrees.

“It’s a crisis situation,” confirms Ysaguirre. “The opportunities for children, for parents, for staff are all shrinking.”

“We either didn’t have applicants or those we had couldn’t work for money offered,” Ysaguirre explains. The salary Nurtury was offering for a lead teacher with a BA ranged from $15.64/hr to $18.66/hr, depending on level of experience, which translates to roughly between $32,000 and $38,000/yr. In contrast, the average yearly salary for a kindergarten teacher in Massachusetts is $67,170/yr.

With labor (i.e. payroll and payroll-related expenses) making up 80 percent of child care costs, early educators bear the brunt of the burden when providers like Nurtury hit financial struggles.

“I am having to make choices I never want to make,” Ysaguirre admits, his voice choking. He lists the benefits he’s already stripped from staff, including cutting the portion of health care Nurtury pays, and no longer contributing to teacher retirement funds. He is even considering ending paid lunch breaks and raising  the teacher-child ratios. “I hate having to put this on the backs of these folks who are already so low paid. These are terrible choices for everyone.”

Involving the Community

Like Nurtury, Ellis Memorial is a cornerstone of the Boston subsidized child care community. And like Wayne Ysaguirre, CEO Leo Delaney has needed to get creative to keep his organization solvent. Ellis accepts a mix of private pay and subsidized children. To meet their budget, they must raise close to $1 million every year in private money.

Ellis—located in the heart of Boston—has leaned heavily on the local business community for contributions. Corporate donors help to fund roughly $100,000 in scholarships for lower middle-class families, those hovering just above the eligibility cut-off for government subsidies but unable to afford full-price quality care.

For someone like Emily Hames, Delaney’s foresight in creating such scholarships has been a godsend. Hames’ two daughters have attended Ellis for the past five years. She works as a community social worker and her husband is the payroll manager for a parking company. Both highly value education—Hames has her master’s degree in social work—and are acutely aware of the importance of providing a solid early education. But with a combined income of around $100,000, given the cost of child care and living expenses in the Boston area, that kind of solid start was out of their price range.

“I spoke to someone involved with Ellis and they told us about the scholarships,” recalls Hames. The scholarship allowed them to send their children to Ellis at 50 percent of the full tuition. Right now, for their pre-K daughter, that means $175/week. “We were fortunate. It meant a lot of very difficult questions we didn’t have to confront.”

Hames’ $50,000 salary brought in more than the yearly cost of child care, and the family’s medical and dental benefits are tied to her job. She couldn’t afford to quit to stay home to become the primary caregiver, nor did she want to.

“I worked hard for this education and this career. I wasn’t ready to abandon it. Perhaps, in an ideal world, I would have taken more time off or worked part-time. But once you step out, I know it can be very difficult to step back in again.”

At Ellis, she and her husband felt confident their daughters were receiving a quality early education. Hames has high praise for the rigorous curriculum and rich, economically diverse learning environment Ellis provides. “It’s rare that you can find all that, but it’s what every child deserves.”

In the absence of affordable child care, teachers and parents alike end up paying the price.

Despite what is working well for Ellis, like other providers, Leo Delaney is frustrated and at times disheartened by the challenges they are up against.

“Right now we can’t find enough qualified teachers to fill available slots. Do I blame them? They can teach at public schools and make $20,000 more. Unless we invest in the teaching workforce, we cannot fill the classrooms. I guess the central problem is pretty simple. Child care is expensive, and nobody can afford to pay for it all.”

In the absence of affordable child care, teachers and parents alike end up paying the price.

Hope for the Future

It would be easy to feel crushed by such pressures—by lack of teachers and lack of funds and lack of adequate support from the state. But instead, advocates, teachers, and providers are sifting through the rubble for some signs of hope.

They point to the state’s inclusion in the federal Preschool Expansion Grant (PEG) program. For the past two years, the state has received a small, $15 million federal grant to expand access to high quality preschool programs in five communities across the state. Area public schools collaborate with community providers who have attained a certain quality rating—Nurtury and Ellis both participate—to enhance learning opportunities for four-year-olds in ways that are sustainable and replicable by other communities. Teachers are paid salaries commensurate with public school teachers with support and continuing education built into the program. PEG also mandates extensive evaluation and data-gathering, which will help  in recreating similar models elsewhere.

Though the PEG program relies upon a small, temporary grant that targets a small portion of the population—preschool aged children eligible for subsidies—there is hope among participants that, if permanently implemented, it might free up resources and create models that could be applied to the 0-3 population as well. PEG differs from many universal pre-K programs in that, instead of being replaced by public school programs, community providers work in tandem with the school system, allowing PEG classrooms to benefit from their often extensive knowledge and experience. It’s a drop in a large bucket—the hope is to enroll a total of 3,000 additional four-year-olds across the four-year life of the grant; there are 224,901 children ages 3-5 in Massachusetts who would ideally qualify for preschool education—but for those taking part, it represents some refreshingly promising change.

“I really hope it is the wave of the future,” says Dawn DiStefano, director of Grant Development at Square One, a Springfield community care provider participating in the program. She extols the opportunity to gather data on the benefits of paying teachers public school salaries and providing them professional development opportunities; to collect hard evidence of what can happen when the schools and the community providers communicate and share resources.

“Maybe if we can prove that investment equals quality, we will find a way to make this model permanent.”

The federal grant is not indefinite, but the state has signaled its commitment to supporting and replicating the program by dedicating an initial $500,000 for planning expansion grants and then an additional $200,000 for fiscal year 2017. 

The Long Road Ahead

Though teachers, advocates, and providers in Massachusetts find hope in developments like the PEG program, they have not lost sight of the fact that the most difficult and important work still lies ahead. Massachusetts may have some of the highest-quality care available in the country,  but it is still part of a broken system. It cannot continue to rely upon patchwork and band-aids—the sacrifices of those like Kim Silva or the ingenuity of those like Leo Delaney and Wayne Ysaguirre—in order to survive.

“We don’t ask any other part of our education system to function like this,” says Marie St. Fleur, reflecting on the state of child care in Massachusetts and throughout the country. “We need to change the way we view and fund early education in a revolutionary way.”

Elizabeth Weingarten contributed to this report