Expanding access to early education and childcare is a linchpin of Gov. Ned Lamont’s plan to shore up the state economy using federal aid dollars, but advocates on the issue say that a longer-term approach will be needed to address statewide shortages of workers and affordable childcare — problems that predate the pandemic.
Merrill Gay, executive director of the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance, says he supports a legislative proposal that would provide student loan forgiveness for individuals who have spent four years working in childcare and a tax credit of between $500 and $1,500 for individuals who work in childcare settings.
Both of these measures, as well as other provisions that would expand access to childcare subsidies, were stripped from the bill as it was moved between legislative committees.
Gay said that the tax credits and the loan forgiveness are important if the state wants to retain high-quality childcare workers.
“Early childhood is one of the lowest compensated professions in the workforce,” said Gay.
Gay said that state funding for childcare programs hasn’t increased since 2015, even as the state minimum
wage has increased every year. Because the programs can’t charge parents more for the childcare, he explained, more experienced childcare workers are not receiving more pay.
“Those programs are using what little they can to pay higher wages to their lowest paid employees, and higher paid, credential teachers haven’t gotten increases in wages,” said Gay.
Gay said that the pandemic has exacerbated the problem, as a large number of women left the workforce to care for their children as they were forced to learn remotedly. He said that many are now questioning whether or not they want to return to work.
Mary Beth Bruder, professor of educational psychology in the Neag School of Education and director of the A.J. Pappanikou Center for Excellence at the University of Connecticut, said that staff was the most important component to a childcare program.
“You have to start with high quality staff,” said Bruder. “I would say the most important [thing] is to have a well compensated workforce that would attract people to come and stay in the workforce.”
Commissioner of the Office of Early Childhood Beth Bye agreed that one of the biggest challenges to early education is the availability of staff to care for the children. She told CT Examiner earlier this month that pay for childcare providers is so low that a person could double the salary by working in a public school.
Bye said before the pandemic, the state was short 50,000 slots for infants and toddlers.
“There are empty classrooms in Connecticut because there aren’t enough teachers,” she said. “Attracting and keeping staff is a huge problem right now in early childhood.”
A barrier to advancement
On Monday, Lamont proposed putting aside $8.8 million to be spent in 2021 for increased subsidies for parents struggling to afford childcare and to provide free summer programs for preschoolers.
Lamont also proposed an additional $50 million for childcare subsidies for parents who are enrolled in a workforce development program or in higher education.
Elizabeth Fraser, director of public policy at the Connecticut Association for Human Services, said that the pandemic has highlighted just how important childcare is to keeping the economy going.
The cost of childcare can negate any financial benefit a woman might receiving from working outside of the home, said Fraser
“It’s so expensive that their whole salary or more would go to childcare.”
In addition to tax credits and student loan forgiveness, legislation supported by Gay would make permanent subsidies to women who are working toward an advanced degree or are enrolled in a job training program.
Gay said that tying childcare subsidies to work status creates a barrier for lower-income families.
“What it does is it just creates a barrier for people to advance,” said Gay.
In addition to plans announced by Lamont, the state’s Office of Early Childhood will offer aid to childcare centers closed during the pandemic.
Bye said in a press conference on Monday that $120 million in federal coronavirus relief funds will be directed toward “stabilization grants” for childcare providers. At least 25 percent of those funds must be used for compensating staff, either through increased wages, granting bonuses, or for assisting with healthcare and retirement costs. Bye said that a portion of these funds would also go directly to family childcare homes, which are mainly owned by women of color.
These measures are expected to be temporary.
State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, ranking member on the Education Committee and a member of the Appropriations Committee, said that she was very disappointed about the removal of the longer-term provisions from the childcare bill. She said she assumed that the bill was changed because the student loan forgiveness and the tax credits would have been too costly.
A significant piece of the legislation that remains would allow organizations to establish family childcare homes in New Britain, Waterbury, Bridgeport, Stamford and New Haven. The bill also creates a task force to make recommendations on early childcare workforce development.
Gay said that the childcare homes were part of a pilot program his organization had been working on for a while. He said he envisioned the program as a business incubator that would give moms — and particularly non-English speakers — a space to create family childcare businesses. He said this could help address some of the shortages in infant and toddler care.
The revised bill still must be approved by the legislature before it is signed into law.
“The best investment the state can make”
Bye said that the Office of Early Childhood does plan to permanently increase the amount that accredited childcare centers receive through subsidies for low-income families to 75 percent of the market rate for childcare, which Bye said could also raise payments for childcare workers.
Bye said the office intends to use $26 million in federal COVID funds to increase the payments this year, and that the governor has pledged to find other sources of funding going forward.
She said that about 30 percent of all non-family child care providers, or 525 childcare centers, are currently accredited, and that she hopes this will convince more centers to pursue accreditation.
The Appropriations Committee also included in its proposed budget $1.2 million for the years 2022 and 2023 to eliminate fees for parents of children in the “Birth to Three” program, an early intervention program for children with learning delays or disabilities. The budget also provides $450,000 each year to provide summer care for children turning three between May 1 and the start of the school year.
Gay said that more needs to be done to make childcare affordable. He said he would ideally like to see the eligibility for childcare subsidies extend to families who make up to 85 percent of the state’s median income for eligibility — about $102,558 for a family of four.
“It is very clear that the big problem with childcare is that there is not enough money in the system to make it affordable for parents,” he said.
And the lasting benefits of childcare have been well-documented.
Nobel Prize winner James J. Heckman, professor of economics and director of the Center of Economies for Human Development at the University of Chicago, has found that participating in early childhood programs increase high school and college graduation rates, decrease crime, increase the likelihood of employment and income levels and improve physical health.
According to Bruder, early childhood education can make a huge difference in closing — or exacerbating — gaps in achievement.
“When you’re taking away that foundation of equitable, high-quality early care and education … for portions of the population, they are starting off at a disadvantage,” said Bruder.
Bruder said there should be no differentiation between childcare and early education, a statement that Bye agreed with.
“High quality preschool is childcare and high quality childcare is preschool,” said Bye. She added, “It’s the best investment that the government can make.”