The Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed a bill Thursday, legislation that calls for major state investments in early education to help correct a system where families struggle to afford care and low pay often forces workers out of the field.

“This framework would provide the structure that’s needed to build affordable care options for families, significantly better pay and benefits for early childhood educators, and a stable source of funding for providers,” Patty Sinclair of the Massachusetts Association for the Education of Young Children said at a Thursday rally in support of the legislation. “Let me say that again: a stable source of funding for providers, high-quality programs and services for children, and substantial relief for businesses in our economy.”

The legislation would make more families eligible for a state subsidy program that defrays early education costs, and cap out-of-pocket costs for families whose children are enrolled in subsidized care.

Currently, a family of four would need an income below $73,000 — half the state's median income — to qualify for a child care subsidy. The bill would raise that threshold to $124,000, or 85% of the median income. The bill also envisions further expansions if funding is made available.

Families who fall below the federal poverty level would pay no out-of-pocket costs for subsidized child care, and costs for those above that line would be capped at 7% of their income — an annual $5,250 for a family with an income of $75,000, for instance.

The sweeping bill also would make scholarship and loan forgiveness programs for early educators permanent, and enshrine into state law a grant program that first launched to keep child care providers afloat during the pandemic. That program, known as C3 grants for "Commonwealth Cares for Children," sends monthly payments directly to providers.

Before the vote, senators shared their personal experiences both as parents struggling to find care and as children who benefitted from high-quality early education.

Sen. Su Moran recalled making “a little bassinet on top of a file cabinet” when she brought her 1-day-old son Jake with her to her job as a partner at a law firm. Everett Sen. Sal DiDomenico brandished the printed program from his own Head Start graduation almost 50 years ago.

Senators have not attached a full price tag to the bill, which would lay out a plan for spending $1.5 billion in early education and care funding contained in this year's budget and for how the state should handle whatever additional money lawmakers appropriate in future years.

While the bill’s goals are popular in the Legislature, the state’s tight financial picture and sluggish revenue collections could pose obstacles to implementing it.

Senate Education Committee Chair Jason Lewis acknowledged during debate that the bill would require “substantial additional investments in early education and care,” and that some “may express skepticism about the feasibility or the wisdom of these such investments.”

Lewis, a Winchester Democrat, pointed to a 2022 report from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation that tallied the costs of inadequate child care in Massachusetts. That report found individuals and families lose $1.7 billion in wages a year from missing work or reducing their hours, employers lose $812 million from lower productivity and turnover costs, and the state misses out on $188 million in tax revenue from the lost wages.

“Very clearly, the current system — the status quo — is already costing us a lot of money,” Lewis said.

State lawmakers for years have been looking for ways to make the child care system work better for families, children and educators.

In 2020, the Legislature set up a special commission, led by Lewis and Rep. Alice Peisch of Wellesley, to conduct an economic review of the early education and care sector and identify policies that would boost access and stabilize providers.

That panel published its findings in March 2022, estimating it would cost upwards of $1.5 billion annually to fully implement all its recommendations.

The report became the basis for a bill the Senate passed four months later. But the Senate's vote came near the end of formal legislative sessions for the last term, and the House did not take up the bill before that deadline passed.

Asked Thursday if passing the bill earlier this time around was a deliberate attempt to give it a longer runway, Senate President Karen Spilka said, “Bingo.”

“I’m hoping that the House takes it up,” Spilka said. “This is a very important bill. It’s part of our educational system, and I know education is important to the speaker and the House members.”

House Speaker Ron Mariano said last year that the House's “full attention” would be directed at “examining ways to further support our vital early education and care workforce” during this two-year session. It’s not clear if House lawmakers will answer the Senate’s bill with a policy package of their own, or if they’ll opt instead to focus on dialing up funding levels in next year’s state budget.