Head Start might have leg up as Massachusetts budget priority

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern visits the Head Start and Child Development Center in Montague in July 2023.

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern visits the Head Start and Child Development Center in Montague in July 2023. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By SAM DRYSDALE

State House News Service

Published: 02-22-2024 4:12 PM

BOSTON — Although they would not explicitly commit to fulfilling a funding request for Head Start, two of the most powerful players at the State House indicated Wednesday that funding the early education program is at the top of their priority list in a fiscal environment where easy choices will be hard to come by.

Head Start programs offer free child care and services for more than 11,000 children from low-income families across the state, as well as those in foster care or experiencing homelessness, providing relief from one of the most notoriously costly expenses of raising a family. The program is mostly federally funded, but state funds supplement the programs.

The Head Start Association is asking Massachusetts for $20 million in supplemental funding this year, a 14% increase from the $17.5 million appropriated in the fiscal year 2024 state budget. During the tenure of Ways and Means Committee chairs Sen. Michael Rodrigues and Rep. Aaron Michlewitz over the last five years, the Legislature has increased funding in the Head Start line item by 82%.

The state dedicated about $9.6 million to the program in 2019, compared to $17.5 million this year, Rodrigues said during a Head Start advocacy day event at the State House on Tuesday.

Rodrigues did not pledge to fulfill the association’s $20 million request in the Senate’s fiscal 2025 budget, but said he is committed to funding early childhood care and education even as storm clouds gather over the state’s fiscal environment.

“It’s going to be a challenge. I’m sure you’ve all been reading that we’re not in the same fiscal position as we have been over the last few years. But the sky’s not falling,” Rodrigues said. He said he “absolutely” places a priority on children and families.

Through the first six months of fiscal year 2024, the state collected $769 million less in taxes than the projections used to craft the annual budget. Gov. Maura Healey responded by cutting $375 million in spending, tapping another $625 million in non-tax revenue and decreasing the annual revenue forecast by $1 billion. And after January’s revenues came in, the state now finds itself $263 million below the downgraded estimates.

Budget writers will have to craft the fiscal 2025 budget with those slumping revenues in mind over the next few months.

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House Speaker Ron Mariano also spoke at the Head Start event, and he discussed how the program in his home city of Quincy has helped low-income and immigrant families there.

Asked after the event if his presence indicated that he plans to fulfill the group’s $20 million funding request in the House budget, Mariano signaled that it was a priority for him as well, while also mentioning the state’s challenging financial situation.

“It’s a very worthy program. I’ve seen the benefit of some of the work they do. So yeah, they go to the top of the list. But it’s not that simple. It’s not that simple with a whole list of priorities, and try and deal with it as best you can,” Mariano said.

Meanwhile, as lawmakers are considering whether to boost funding for the program, Gov. Maura Healey recommended cutting back on how much the state spends on Head Start.

In her budget recommendation, Healey recommended a $2.5 million decrease in Head Start grants compared to the current fiscal  year. Healey had tried to veto $1 million of the $17.5 million appropriated for fiscal 2024, writing in her veto message that she was reducing the line item to “the amount projected to be necessary,” and that “the adjusted funding level proposed here is consistent with the FY23 GAA and sustains significant expansion to this line-item in recent fiscal years.”

Lawmakers restored the funding to the full $17.5 million that they had agreed to appropriate. Still, there were hiccups in getting that money into the hands of child care providers.

As of January — six months into fiscal 2024 — $2.5 million of Early Head Start and Head Start funding had been held up in the state. Healey’s budget teams were working with the Department of Early Education and Care “to release the $2.5 million expansion as soon as possible,” an administration spokesperson said at the time.

After years of focus on investment in K-12 schools with the rollout of the Student Opportunity Act, lawmakers and Healey seem to be turning their attention toward programs to expand access to higher and early education, which often gets less public support. Healey still recommended fully funding the Student Opportunity Act for K-12 students in fiscal 2025.

In her budget recommendation, Healey also proposed spending $311 million of surtax funds on early education and care — the biggest spending tab from the $1.3 billion pot of money newly available after voters in 2022 approved a 4% surtax on wealthy individuals, the so-called “millionaire’s tax.”

Healey’s surtax spending recommendations include a $150 million boost to popular child care grants (Commonwealth Cares for Children, or C3) that are meant to stabilize the early education and care system amid the turmoil of a churning workforce and expensive services for young families. Added together with appropriations in other sections of the budget, Healey recommends a total $475 million investment in the C3 grants.

Commissioner of Early Education Amy Kershaw said at an early ed board meeting Wednesday afternoon that the C3 grants have not only stabilized the early education field, but also helped to grow it.

“Not only are we seeing an increase in the capacity in our early education and care system, but we’re seeing increases in salary, increases in compensation, and increases in quality investments in programs as well,” Kershaw said. “And as we visit programs, we also hear about the essential role it’s playing and making sure all of those investments can happen without the cost being passed along to families, which has been really essential.”

The governor rolled out her big early education plan in January, announcing that she would seek to expand a universal preschool program into all 26 “Gateway Cities” by 2026, use $75 million to expand access to child care financial assistance for families up to 85 percent of the state median income, boost C3 grants, and file an executive order calling for a “whole-of-government” approach to boosting access to child care.

“It’s not about pressing any one lever, but making sure we’re supporting programs with stability,” Kershaw said.

Top House Democrats are again pushing plans to use gambling revenue for early education. Their pitch to allow Massachusetts Lottery games to go online — an idea that House leaders estimated could generate $200 million — failed last year. But top officials in that chamber again seem to be eyeing those potential revenues to pay for early education as a stronger emphasis has been placed on the expensive challenges of child care.