BTWIC recently conducted a survey to assess how the voucher system is working for parents and providers. We have been hearing from the field that things are becoming more complicated, and we wanted to assess the situation. Our survey indicated that things are indeed becoming more complicated—69% of the providers surveyed responded that over the past three years voucher management has become harder for parents. After meeting with Commissioner Sheri Killins, and reviewing the Department of Early Education and Care’s plans for restructuring the voucher system, BTWIC is optimistic that the system will soon become more navigable. As with any system that is in the process of being redesigned, there is sure to be an interim time with some unavoidable confusion. How can early education administrators help parents during this transition period? The DEEC is reducing the number of Child Care Resource and Referral agencies (CCR&R’s) in the state. The Mass 2-1-1 resource which we highlighted in our February 24th blog entry, now functions as the main resource and referral center for parents statewide. For parents who need more in-depth services, Mass 2-1-1 will refer them to their regional CCR&R. Directing parents to the Mass 2-1-1 service is the first step in helping parents navigate the changing system. In addition, parents should be made aware of the ongoing freeze on income-eligible vouchers which is anticipated to continue throughout 2013. Parents can now get on the centralized, online waitlist for income-eligible vouchers, Kinderwait. This new waitlist system will require parents to take more responsibility to ensure that their contact information is kept up-to-date, as well as their status on the list. In the meantime, DEEC is gearing up to train CCR&R workers so that the new technology they will be using to administer and renew vouchers is understood and policies are administered in a more consistent, supportive manner. In July, the Department anticipates that the new system will be up and running. BTWIC hopes to assist DEEC in spreading the word about how to navigate the new system—so stay tuned!
A central goal of the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care (DEEC), as stated in their Annual Legislative Report, is to close the achievement gap for “high needs” children in our state. This goal references the achievement gap in MA which shows a 33% difference between low income and non-low income children’s MCAS scores in third grade reading proficiency.¹ The significance of this gap is made more evident when you consider that nearly one-third of children in MA are low-income. DEEC has recently broadened their definition of “high needs” children to include other groups in addition to low income, and now encompasses other children at risk of developmental delays and/or school readiness gaps, such as non-English speakers, recent immigrants, English language learners, children with parents who don’t have a high school diploma or equivalency, homeless children, and children with special needs. The expanded definition comes from the Early Learning Challenge grant and targets children who can benefit most from quality early education. The Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children was founded in order to improve the quality of early education for the same group of “high needs” children identified by the DEEC. From our voucher study,Keeping the Promise: A Study of the MA Child Care Voucher System, to our Blueprint for Early Education Compensation Reform, our focus has been on finding ways to create the best early education system in order to benefit the children with the greatest need. While our state is making unprecedented strides forward in improving early education quality with help from the federal dollars we received from the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant, it is important to think ahead about how MA will maintain the level of quality we create with the 50 million dollars once the money has been spent. It is also important to come up with creative solutions towards increasing access to the new high-quality system for high-needs children. Several studies have demonstrated the long-term benefits of investing in early education for high needs kids. The argument for the return on investment made by spending money to create better access to quality programs in order to avoid later expenses on special education and other social services is particularly compelling. Nationally there seems to be a trend beginning that recognizes the logic of investing in early education. However, states need to match the federal dollars if we are going to truly sustain a quality, accessible early education system.
Early educators who work with low-income children witness the multiple ways that poverty impacts children and families: from homelessness to hunger or food insecurity, to difficulties paying for quality early education, to a multitude of other complex issues. Many early educators have experienced the impacts of poverty on a personal level as well, due to the low compensation rates in the field. Beginning this Monday March 12th, the Center for Hunger-Free Communities’ Witnesses to Hunger program will be exhibiting photographs by eight Witnesses. The Witnesses are Boston-based mothers who use photography to depict their personal experiences with poverty. The exhibit, which runs from Monday March 12th through Thursday March 15th, will be at the State House in Doric Hall. The opening reception is on Monday from 1:00-1:40pm with the eight Witnesses, the founder of the Witnesses program—Mariana Chilton, and several local and state government officials. A detailed schedule of the 4-day event is available here. Witnesses to Hunger is run by the Center for Hunger Free Communities located at the Drexel University of Public Health in Philadelphia. The Center is a unique anti-poverty program that engages with people experiencing poverty to inform their public policy and advocacy agenda. The Witnesses Program uses photography to capture images of poverty, and then displays them for policy makers and the general public to increase their understanding of the issues that can develop from living in poverty. The four-day event in Boston includes a panel discussion on the impact of hunger and housing on public health, and a housing policy lunch with Witnesses and legislators. Children’s HealthWatch is sponsoring the event along with Project Bread and Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD). Children’s HealthWatch (CHW), a national organization which conducts research and advocacy on the health impacts of poverty, is closely connected to the Center for Hunger-Free Communities. The Philadelphia branch of CHW is run by the Center, which also runs the Philadelphia Grow Clinic. The Boston branch of CHW is located at Boston Medical Center and is run in conjunction with the Boston Grow Clinic. For more information on the Center for Hunger Free Communities, visit their website.
Since the September 2010 release of our report, Blueprint for Early Education Compensation Reform, the Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children has been working to implement the four recommendations from the report to improve compensation for the field of early education in Massachusetts. One of those recommendations is the establishment of an early education permanent fund that would be used to support a range of early education activities throughout the state. Both Nebraska and Minnesota have established innovative funds for early education which provide potential models for MA. What would the fund be used for? Ideally, an early education permanent fund would be usedto increase compensation for early educators. This might involve stipends for educators who complete certain professional development targets or who progress up the Department of Early Education and Care (DEEC)’s Career Ladder. The fund could also be used to support quality improvements for programs, particularly for those that are working to attain a higher Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) rating. In 2011, BTWIC created a Task Force of primary stakeholders that has been meeting bi-monthly for the past year to discuss the feasibility and strategy for creating a permanent fund for early education in MA. The Task Force meetings have resulted in a general consensus that a permanent fund is doable and would be beneficial for the state. In the fall, members of the local philanthropic community were invited to a Task Force meeting to explore their opinions on the fund, which were largely supportive. In January, two representatives of the Maine Children’s Growth Council attended the Task Force meeting to share their process of engaging a group of business CEOs around the issue of early education. With the assistance of marketing specialists Amy Gordonaand Lisa Hoder of John Hancock, the fund was named SEED (Sustaining Early Education Development) and a matching logo was created in early 2012. The Task Force is now wrapping up and will complete its work in May 2012. BTWIC will then convene a smaller advisory group to move forward with the concrete phase of developing the SEED fund.