On Thursday, the Office of Early Childhood received a $26.8 million federal grant targeted toward supporting and expanding the workforce by easing the burden of childcare.
“How do we support the workforce, that is the essential problem,” said Beth Bye, the commissioner for the Office of Early Childhood. “Childcare and workforce go hand in hand. That’s why we are coordinating with the workforce efforts led by Governor Lamont.”
Without reliable childcare, it is more difficult for parents to work outside the home and join the workforce — a priority for the governor, said Bye.
“The strength of our state is dependent upon the strength of our workforce, which is why it is critical that we have resources in place for the youngest people in our communities – regardless of their zip code or family income level – so that as they grow, they can achieve greater opportunities that lead to success throughout their career as adults,” Governor Lamont said in a press release. “This grant is going to help in our efforts to close the achievement gaps that have persisted for too long.
The new grant will allocated over three years to support scholarships for individuals to study child development and education, as well as bonuses for those working in the field who earn degrees. The grant money will also fund efforts to reorganize the current system for credentialing professionals in the field.
The challenge of expanding the workforce
“Since I’ve been commissioner the biggest concern has been our approach to the workforce. We need to make it more clear and cohesive. We need regulations that make sense,” Bye said. “Right now, the UConn childcare program can’t get you certified to work in Connecticut, but it works in three other New England States.”
The sticking point, according to Bye, is that the state of Connecticut requires early childhood providers to be certified in special education, something most other states do not.
“We need regulations that make sense and we need salaries that fit their qualifications,” Bye said.
At Bright & Early, a 5-center chain of daycare facilities in Connecticut, the hourly salary was $16 an hour until recently, according to Kathy Pancione, the regional director at Bright & Early.
“Candidates are looking for what they should be getting paid and making $16 per hour with a Bachelor’s degree is not enough,” Pancione said. “We try not to have to put increase in pay on our families and raise out tuition rates.”
Pancione said with the minimum wage set to increase to $15 per hour, Bright & Early recently raised their pay slightly to stay competitive for the most qualified candidates on the market.
According to Pancione, the same candidates could get hired at a public elementary school for more and money and without the requirement of special education training.
This year, reimbursement for Care 4 Kids – a federal and state program that supplements the cost of childcare for low-income families – increased by an additional $14.6 million to the state, allowing for vouchers to increase to $300 per week for infant and toddler care to eligible families.
“Higher reimbursement means more money going to child care centers and more money going to employees,” Bye said. If centers are able to increase their employee pay, more qualified candidates are likely to join the workforce.
Updating OEC systems
The grant will also provide for the establishment of a ‘parent cabinet’ to advise the Office of Early Childhood on the needs of working families. In addition, the grant will help in the on-going effort to digitize the data collection and inspection system housed by the office.
“To think we’ve been collecting this data for years and it’s not in a usable form is really disheartening. We want to have the data in a digital system so we can track our outcomes and the impacts our state funding makes,” Bye said. “That will be a real benefit of this grant.”
The data that is collected includes staffing at child care centers, the number of children on Care 4 Kids at each center, and the hours that children attend daycare. Currently, that data is not collected in a format that would allow for an evaluation of the impact of changes made by the office or to grant funding, Bye said.
This is not the first federal grant the Office of Early Childhood has received in recent years. Two years ago, the office received a $60 million grant to be used over the course of four years and last year the office received a $8.9 million grant also aimed at updating the data collection and database systems.
“Any time that early childhood gets any kind of money is a good thing. Anything they are going to do to make the systems easier for the administrators to use is a good thing,” Pancione said. “Whether or not it directly affects Bright & Early will be seen, hopefully it trickles down soon.”