A family’s ability to have no-cost access to quality early care and education programs, like Boston’s Universal Pre-K, depends on funding decisions that impact the program providers themselves. These funding decisions must consider the true operational costs of running a program to ensure that families can access programs and that providers can give quality care to eligible children. Most importantly, sustaining early care and education programs is incomplete without supporting the child care workforce that leads these programs.

Children’s Funding Project previously partnered with the Boston Public Schools Department of Early Childhood to develop a cost model and new funding formula to inform how the school district and city fund universal preschool classrooms located in community-based child care centers (including independent school providers). Boston Universal Pre-K has offered free preschool to all 4-year-olds who live within city limits since 2019 and expanded to serve 3-year-olds in 2021. Boston Public Schools administers the program and provides preschool services in public school buildings, community-based child care organizations, and family child care homes to ensure enough capacity across the city and to provide more family choice.

When city and school district leaders consider sustaining essential programs and services for children, like the Universal Pre-K program, cost models are dynamic tools that can address new questions about the costs of these programs. But for these tools to remain effective, communities must maintain and update their cost models and funding formulas regularly to respond to changes in program operating costs, like increases in staff wages. We collaborated with Boston Public Schools again during the 2023-2024 school year to update the existing cost model. We also helped local leaders set guidelines for updating the funding formula to ensure Universal Pre-K teachers and staff receive adequate wages and to more fairly support small and unique classrooms.

Maintaining a Living Wage for Universal Pre-K Teachers

It’s important to update funding formulas to ensure that program funding keeps pace with the various factors that impact child care, such as changes in staff wages and increasing costs of delivering child care. Updating Boston’s Universal Pre-K funding formula to account for the increase in teachers’ salaries was especially important to ensure that community-based centers could continue to afford to run their Universal Pre-K classrooms. 

Boston Universal Pre-K establishes minimum salaries for Universal Pre-K staff, which has been crucial in retaining center-based teachers and reducing staff turnover, as the Children’s Funding Project team discovered during our original analysis of the Universal Pre-K program. Boston’s original cost model showed that staffing costs, like salaries and fringe benefits, comprise 70% to 80% of total Universal Pre-K program costs. With these true costs in mind, the working group had to decide how to establish minimum compensation for Universal Pre-K teachers and related staff in community-based centers that aligns with salaries for Boston Public Schools employees. The working group recommended using the entry level salary of the Boston Teachers Union “Traditional Teacher Salaries” scale as a minimum salary benchmark for Universal Pre-K lead teachers in community-based centers. By establishing this as a salary minimum, the program’s salaries align with those for school district teachers but also allow center directors the flexibility to increase salaries for teachers they feel should receive higher compensation. The working group also determined a standardized process to update salary minimums for assistant teachers, program directors, and family engagement specialists. These salaries will increase proportionally to any increases in the salaries for lead teachers that occur through future bargaining contracts for the Boston Teachers Union. 

In addition to updating salaries, the working group recognized that the Universal Pre-K program needed a consistent way to update nonpersonnel costs too. Nonpersonnel costs can include rent/lease or mortgage payments, classroom supplies, and food costs. If nonpersonnel costs do not keep pace with inflation, then program providers often offset those costs by paying their teachers and other staff members lower wages. To avoid this situation, the existing cost model  included a provision that provides Universal Pre-K classrooms with an additional set funding amount for each Universal Pre-K child enrolled. The 2023-2024 working group recommended adjusting the amount of this per-child funding every two years, beginning in 2025 and using the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index, to account for inflation and operating costs.

Funding Small and Unique Classrooms

Funding formulas require thoughtful and grounded decisions to establish an appropriate updating process. As Boston’s Universal Pre-K program has expanded and added more small and unique classroom configurations, Boston Public Schools needed to update and simplify its approach to funding these types of classrooms. 

Small classrooms that serve 10 or fewer children and unique classrooms, like those that serve a majority of children from outside the Boston city limits, each have specific funding needs that differ from those of Boston’s typical Universal Pre-K classrooms that serve between 12 and 20 children who are mostly city residents. The 2023-2024 working group recommended using a per-child funding formula to support these types of small and unique classrooms instead of the per-classroom formula used to calculate funding for larger traditional Universal Pre-K classrooms. This ensures that center-based providers who have small and unique classrooms can continue accessing stable Universal Pre-K program funding. The working group also recommended that this per-child formula be updated each year to reflect the true cost per child to account for future needs and challenges center-based providers may experience in the future.

Involving Community-Based Universal Pre-K Providers Throughout the Process

Establishing and maintaining strong relationships with direct service providers is crucial in making high-quality programs sustainable. In Boston, the working group overseeing the updated funding formula included leaders from eight center-based programs to ensure that its work included input from direct service providers at all stages. Additionally, the working group provided an overview of its progress and previewed its final recommendations during a feedback session meeting that was open to all center-based Universal Pre-K programs in Boston, before recommendations were finalized. Additionally, Boston Public Schools Department of Early Childhood staff held office hour meetings where direct service providers could provide feedback about the proposed recommendations and ask questions about how the recommendations would impact their centers specifically. Continued partnerships between Boston Public Schools and center-based providers are needed to maintain the funding formula and cost model in the long run. Ensuring that high-quality programs are sustainable involves insight and guidance from providers, including providers in community-based centers.

Going forward, Boston school officials will be able to update expenses in the Universal Pre-K funding formula to reflect proposed salary changes, staffing pattern changes, and other changes that impact the cost of providing care. By simultaneously updating the cost model, Boston school officials will also be able to compare the funding formula to the true cost of providing Universal Pre-K education. The updated funding formula and cost model have established a process for how these tools should be updated in the future. This new process sets a precedent for establishing the wages of Universal Pre-K center-based teachers and creates a new benchmark that hopefully will lead to pay parity between Boston Public Schools teachers and center-based educators in the future. By meeting the needs of Universal Pre-K teachers in both public school and community-based settings through adequate wages, Boston Public Schools sustains multiple child care settings and ensures family choice in child care decision-making.

Kate Ritter is a senior manager of cost modeling and Avy Osalvo is a policy intern at Children’s Funding Project.