When Jayden, a rambunctious preschooler, walked through the doors of Horizons for Homeless Children in Roxbury a year ago, he barely spoke a word, not much more than “mommy’’ and “daddy.’’ Now, his mother says, he’s almost too expressive.
“I forget I’m talking to a 3-year-old,’’ Kim Webster said.
These are critical years in a child’s life, a time when achievement gaps emerge, and the prime moment to intervene. But in Massachusetts, 30,000 children from low-income families linger on preschool waiting lists, unable to obtain the state voucher that will pay for their care. The backlog has nearly doubled since 2011, when state budget problems led to a freeze in issuing new vouchers.
“We have empty seats,’’ said Deborah Kincade Rambo, president of Catholic Charities of Boston, which serves about 1,100 children. “We know there are people out there who would like to be able to get their children into child care, but they can’t because they can’t access the state subsidies.’’
And if parents don’t have access to child care, parents can’t work. “So,’’ she said, “it’s a never-ending cycle.’’
To begin putting more students in classrooms, Governor Deval Patrick has proposed boosting spending on early childhood education next year by about $130 million. Those dollars would be used to increase the pool of money low-income families can access to help pay for day care. It would also bump up the rate paid to day care centers. The governor also wants to increase capacity during the next four years.
Patrick’s proposed $34.8 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning in July, which calls for nearly across-the-board increases in state spending, makes it a goal to move all children toward being proficient readers by third grade. The spending increases would be paid for in large part by a $1.9 billion tax hike and a $400 million withdrawal from the state’s reserve fund.
Massachusetts early child-care educators say that Patrick’s proposal would help restore balance to a system thrown out of whack by the voucher freeze. Slots open up as children age out or move out of early child-care programs, but new children cannot enroll because their families cannot access needed subsidies, said William Eddy, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Early Education and Care.
Fewer students mean less revenue, so providers shrink capacity to cut costs, Eddy said. The question is: Do I hire a teacher and open a classroom with only a handful of students? The answer, he said, is often no.
“The whole Massachusetts early education system is completely destabilized right now,’’ he said.
And, he added, it does not help that the state has failed to increase the value of vouchers for six years.
Sherri Killin, state commissioner of early education and care, said the decision to block access to vouchers was the result of an unstable economy.
“We have seen a surge of about 2,000 people per month go on to our waiting lists and we have not been able to respond to that need,’’ Killin said.
There is no guarantee the governor will get what he wants in early education or other state programs. Leaders in the Legislature, which must approve Patrick’s budget plan, have suggested some elements might have to be scaled back.
But should the Legislature pass the budget, child-care providers, big and small, across Massachusetts have wish lists ready. Classrooms will be reopened, retirement benefits restored, salaries increased, and training programs replicated.
Cindy Gagliastre, as director of Tiny Treasures in Worcester, has become all too familiar with the spirals of the child care funding system as she watches the enrollment of her small child-care center fluctuate. Many of her parents are struggling financially and are right on the eligibility line for vouchers, she said.
“Or,’’ she said, “they are on the list and the list is so long that by the time they get the voucher, they don’t have the job any more.’’
Her center cares for 37 children, and six families pay using state vouchers. If more parents have access to vouchers and the vouchers pay the providers more, Gagliastre said, “we can implement some extra things that we’ve had to cut back on.’’
She’s cut back on field trips and only buys necessities, and she would like to pay her staff of eight a bit more but cannot afford it.
Vouchers for preschoolers pay $150 a month less than what parents who pay out of pocket are charged at Tiny Treasures. The difference for toddlers is $100.
“Every parent is entitled to a high-quality program,’’ said Gagliastre, who does not get additional funding from an outside agency.
“I want to be able to offer that to all parents. But then, I have to look and say . . . do I accept the voucher and take the loss?’’
Wayne Ysaguirre, president of Associated Early Care and Education, a Boston-based organization that runs six centers that serve low-income and working-class families, said he would be able to return to full capacity if the state increases its early childhood budget. Because of funding cuts, his program shrank by about 120 students in the past two years.
“We’re being very optimistic,’’ Ysaguirre said. “It’s very difficult to have parents call us, desperate for child care, and we can’t help them. We’ve been preparing to make those phone calls and send out those letters to parents.’’
He wants to reward the teachers on his staff who went back to school and earned bachelor’s degrees but have not seen their salaries increase. He also plans to provide coaches to work with teachers to improve curriculum.
Åsa Fanelli, president of Horizons for Homeless, said an increase in state funds would encourage private donors to give more, helping to ensure they could move 170 students off their waiting list. The nonprofit organization educates 175 children who live in shelters or transitional housing at its three child-care centers. About 30 percent of its $10 million budget comes from state and federal funds.
“The need is incredible,’’ Fanelli said inside the Roxbury center. “I would like to double this one.’’
Each of Horizons’ classrooms has three teachers, more than two-thirds of whom have bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Once a family is in a stable living situation, the children can continue at Horizons. About 25 percent of families, including Webster and her three children, are no longer homeless.
Webster, mother of the now-talkative Jayden became homeless when he was an infant, credits Horizons with helping to keep him from falling behind developmentally. A therapist worked with Jayden once a week at the center, articulating words during play, encouraging him to express emotions in words, not actions.
Researchers comparing households of different incomes have found not only a disparity in the complexity of words used, but also differences in the sheer number spoken. Children of professionals were, on average, exposed to about 1,500 more words per hour than children growing up in poverty.
But the children in that Roxbury preschool classroom with Jayden did not seem to be at a loss for words, as they sat in a circle passing a cup of solid ice. The boy who would barely speak just months ago describes it with ease: “It melts.’’And: “It freezes, and it gets cold.’’