Gov. Maura Healey will press for major investments into the long-strained early education and care sector despite her administration's muted forecast for state finances, pitching the spending as an economic and competitive necessity.
Healey on Tuesday announced plans to pursue about $93 million in new child care spending in her fiscal year 2025 budget proposal, which will also request another $475 million in grants to continue supporting early education providers.
Altogether, the governor outlined more than half a billion dollars she wants to deploy to help more Bay State families access and afford child care, particularly in lower-income areas and communities of color.
"We recognize that the cost of child care is high, is out of reach for so many. We know that too many providers are hanging on or barely hanging on. Too many educators struggle," Healey said after touring child care facilities in Malden. "We know that there are predominantly women, especially immigrants and women of color, impacted by this. It's an equity issue for sure. We know that too many parents have had to make a hard choice to not work, to not leave the home and work simply because they cannot afford child care."
"Child care, as I said, is a linchpin. It's foundational, it's central to our agenda, both for families, for education, for workforce, for business development. It is that important," she added.
Healey's newest plan features four components: expanding a universal preschool program into all 26 "gateway cities" by 2026, making more low- and moderate-income families eligible for child care assistance, funding another year of the Commonwealth Cares for Children (C3) grants, and an executive order calling for a "whole-of-government" approach to boosting access to child care.
A spokesperson said the fiscal 2025 budget Healey must file by Jan. 24 will propose using $75 million in revenue from the new income surtax to increase the eligibility threshold for the Child Care Financial Assistance (CCFA) program.
Currently, families must earn no more than 50 percent of the state median income to qualify for the financial aid, meaning $49,467 annually for a family of two or $61,106 for a family of three, according to Healey's office. Her proposal would change that to 85 percent of the state median income, equivalent to about $84,094 for a family of two or $103,880 for a family of three.
Officials estimated the higher threshold would help about 4,000 more families receive support.
Healey also wants to expand the state's Commonwealth Preschool Partnership Initiative into every "gateway city" in the state. The initiative is behind preschool programs in various communities and provides subsidies to help families enroll children at low or zero cost.
The program currently operates in a dozen gateway cities: Brockton, Fall River, Haverhill, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, Malden, New Bedford, Salem, Springfield and Westfield. State law defines gateway cities as mid-sized communities with lower-than-average incomes and educational attainment rates. Healey's proposal would expand the preschool initiative into the 14 other gateway cities by the end of 2026, starting with a $38.7 million investment in the fiscal 2025 budget using combined general fund and surtax money.
A spokesperson for the state Executive Office of Education later clarified that the $38.7 million figure will be the entire fiscal 2025 recommendation for CPPI, an increase of $18.1 million over fiscal 2024 funding for the program.
The program currently operates in a dozen gateway cities, which state law defines as mid-sized communities with lower-than-average incomes and educational attainment rates. Healey's proposal would expand it into the 14 other gateway cities by the end of 2026, starting with a $38.7 million investment in the fiscal 2025 budget using combined general fund and income surtax money.
"Look, the goal is to get to universal pre-K for every 4-year-old in the state. That is the goal of our state," Healey said in Malden. "What we're going to work to do is that by the end of 2026, every 4-year-old in every gateway city in this state will have access to universal pre-K. That's not too far away, so we've got work to do, but that's how committed we are to this."
Healey's office said her annual budget will also propose $475 million in C3 grants using a combination of general fund and surtax revenues, mirroring the amount to which the governor and Legislature agreed in fiscal 2024.
C3 grants launched during the COVID-19 pandemic with federal funding before Massachusetts elected officials opted to keep the program going using state dollars. Last year, Education Secretary Patrick Tutwiler warned that allowing the funding to expire would lead to "a serious swath of child care closures."
Healey's office said C3 grants have supported more than 42,000 educators, kept more than 7,000 programs open, and added about 10,000 slots for children.
Tutwiler on Tuesday described the combined package of proposals as "a down payment to the future success of our children."
"For years, child care and early education has been viewed as an accessory, a private decision between families and a provider, a nice-to-have but not a basic necessity," added Congresswoman Katherine Clark, who joined Healey's team in Malden. "It took a global pandemic to show everyone what so many in this room already knew: that child care makes all other work possible, and it empowers not only kids to learn, but parents to thrive and our business community to grow."
Healey's announcement Tuesday previews one major slice of her fiscal 2025 budget proposal, which she plans to unveil next week. Other hints or proposals are likely to come on Wednesday, when she delivers her first State of the Commonwealth address.
With tax collections running short of expectations, Healey last week cut $375 million from the current state budget. Her budget team and top legislative Democrats expect fiscal 2025 tax collections to grow about $1.1 billion, or about 2 percent compared to its latest estimates.
Much of the spending push Healey outlined Tuesday would make use of surtax revenues, which voters approved to be earmarked just for education and transportation revenues, with some additional money from the state's general fund.
Asked if the governor saw any need to increase taxes or fees to cover the additional investments, Healey spokesperson Karissa Hand replied, "The Governor's Gateway to Pre-K agenda is a fiscally responsible proposal that draws on available Fair Share and general funds to make child care more affordable and accessible."
Massachusetts has some of the highest child care costs in the country, and a lack of available, affordable slots imposes strain on the state's economy by preventing many -- especially women -- from working. Many Bay State business leaders have urged policymakers to address the issue, arguing they need better child care options to attract and retain workers.
Kerry Bryant, the director of strategic initiatives at biopharmaceutical firm Takeda, joined Healey and members of the Cabinet at Tuesday's event, where she recounted signing up for seven different child care waitlists a full year before she needed care.
"It wasn't until shortly before I was supposed to return to work that we were offered a spot at one center -- one of seven," Bryant said. "Fortunately, our local YMCA has proven to be the best early learning option for our family, but the irony is there was no option. We didn't have the luxury of choosing a center. We felt lucky simply to have a spot. But parenting and the early education of our children shouldn't rely on luck."