Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

While the state waits for new revenue to significantly expand early education and care opportunities for young children, it’s important to ensure that the existing subsidy system is operating as effectively as possible.

This was the intention of state legislators in FY14 when they approved $500,000 in funding to conduct a two-year, independent study of The Department of Early Education and Care’s (EEC) child care access accounts. These accounts are commonly referred to as Income Eligible, TANF, and Supportive Child Care. They consist of federal funds and required state matches, and they make up the majority of EEC’s budget.

Now, two years have passed and the research results are in.

The Urban Institute, a D.C.-based policy research organization, has released its findings in a series of policy reports that look at:

• improving the efficiency of the system

• analyzing gaps in the availability of subsidies, and,

• assessing the balance between providing quality early education for children and providing workforce support for guardians

Massachusetts wins praise for its strengths and gets feedback on ways to improve its vision and its delivery of services. 

Gina Adams, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and a co-author on several of the reports says, “Massachusetts, as is true in every state, has difficult choices to make in allocating scarce subsidy funds to meet the needs of children and their parents. Our report highlights some of the implications of those tradeoffs, including the challenges of creating an integrated vision, gaps in the funding and allocation of subsidies, inadequacies in the supply of subsidized care, and challenges in meeting the needs of parents with non-traditional work patterns.”

And Tom Weber, the commissioner of EEC, told us, “The Urban Institute’s review was extremely helpful in affirming areas in which EEC excels in the delivery of early education and care services, while providing incisive recommendations on policy enhancements to support both providers and families. I thank them for their thoughtful analysis, and for the continued support of the Legislature as the Department strives to advance Massachusetts’ early education and care system at all levels.”

Policies and Practices

EEC has many strong policies and a strong “community of committed staff and partners,” according to one report, “Review of Massachusetts Child Care Subsidy Eligibility Policies and Practices.”

But EEC is also managing a complex subsidy system and staff members are stretched to their administrative limits.

To address these and other issues, the report makes 12 key recommendations, including:

• “Develop united and coherent subsidy policies across EEC units so there is consistency between the administration and finance, audit resolution, legal, and policy units and so that linkages are developed with the licensing unit to ensure coordination and communication.”

• “Proactively seek more input from partner agencies and local subsidy entities during the policy development process and test new policies before rollout to ensure that they work for the full range of clients and can be implemented effectively.”

• “Examine key subsidy policies identified as problematic by stakeholders, particularly those on self-employment documentation and verification, assessing household size, proving disability, job search period, education and training activities, absences, and 90-day gap in service.”

Budget Policies

“Review of Budgetary Policies and Practices in the Massachusetts Subsidized Child Care System” is a report on how EEC can “more efficiently manage annual appropriations from multiple budgetary accounts that fund child care services.”

The report calls on EEC to redesign its forecasting models “to rely less on the most recent month and more on data over several months.”

In addition, EEC could consider “changing the structure of budgetary accounts” so that the department can “find a way of dealing with the inevitable differences between projected and actual spending.”

Closing Gaps

The report “Review of Child Care Needs of Eligible Families in Massachusetts” looks at the gaps “between need and supply… by comparing estimates of children needing care to licensing and subsidy data.”

As the report’s information page explains, “The report’s findings include gaps for infant and toddler care, children in two of six sub-state regions, and families working nontraditional hours. It also highlighted challenges geographically matching needs and supply and the link between the child care subsidy system and the broader child care market.”

Striking a Balance 

“This report examines a challenging issue that every state faces: the subsidy system’s need to achieve the best balance between providing quality early childhood education and meeting the workforce needs of low-income parents,” according to the executive summary of “Balancing Quality Early Education and Parents’ Workforce Success”.

“The focus of the assessment, as requested by the legislature, was to help identify inefficiencies in the system. As a result, the research team focused on weaknesses that could be addressed.”

But as the report adds, it also “became clear that the subsidy system in Massachusetts has many strengths.”

Taking account of these strengths and weakness, this report recommends:

• Strengthening EEC’s vision so that it more explicitly focuses on the dual goals of both “supporting child development and supporting workforce needs of parents and guardians.”

• Consider strengthening “core elements of the subsidy program” to boost support for child development while maintaining support for access to care.

• Look for ways to support parents who work evenings, weekends, or at other times when traditional child care programs do not offer services

• Design strategies to come up with more subsidized child care spots to better meet the demand from parents

Finally, an unpublished technical document — “Assessment of Business Processes and Service Delivery” — looked at: “The assessment of the business process of EEC operations and subsequent work focused on improving the current business processes and service delivery of the EEC central office.”

Moving Forward 

These findings and recommendations provide EEC with both encouragement and insights on how to become more efficient and effective.

The next step is for EEC to process this information and devise strategies for change. Fortunately, the department can build on its strengths as it continues to provide a high-quality statewide system of early education and care.