Lamont Asks to Shift Budget Money from Public Schools to Child Care, Drawing Criticism

Office of Early Childhood Beth Bye speaks during a news conference with Gov. Ned Lamont at a child care center in Hartford on Feb. 14, 2024 (CT Examiner).

Share

TwitterFacebookCopy LinkPrintEmail

In a budget year with little space for new expenses, the governor is asking legislators to approve additional spending for child care, a move that advocates say is desperately needed but could come at the expense of millions meant for public schools.  

Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposal, which adds $43.3 million for child care subsidies, stabilization grants for child care providers and a pilot program in eastern Connecticut, requires shifting $36 million from a $150 million block of funds that the legislature set aside for K-12 schools. 

Legislators from both parties and education advocates have already expressed concern and spoken out against reallocating the funding, which would mainly have been reserved to help municipalities pay tuition to magnet schools and vocational agriculture schools.  

Lamont said during a news conference on Wednesday that K-12 schools would continue receiving an increase in their state funding through the Education Cost Sharing formula, and that some of the $150 million that the early childhood dollars would replace was what he considered “municipal aid.”

“I thought early childhood was education. I thought this was broadly within the parameters of where we wanted to make these investments,” he said.. 

State Rep. Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford, chair of the Education Committee, said during a meeting last week that this was a misinterpretation of what the legislature intended for those dollars. He said the money was meant to provide savings to local governments and would help these entities with teacher contract negotiations. 

Lamont added that school districts have more than $400 million remaining in federal coronavirus relief funds, which he said should give districts more resources. 

“They’ve husbanded those resources and hopefully they’ll be putting those to good work as well. So, most of those towns are going to end up with a lot more money, not less,” he said. 

Under Lamont’s proposal, rates for Care4Kids, the state child care subsidy system, are set to increase 17 percent, in addition to an 11 percent contractual increase between the state and the child care union; the number of seats available in Care4Kids will also increase by about 1.600. Additionally, eligibility will expand to families who make 65 percent or less of the state median income — about $86,500 for a family of four. 

The governor’s plan also streamlines funding for state-supported programs and pays providers based on a per-classroom, rather than a per-child, rate. Office of Early Childhood Commissioner Beth Bye told CT Examiner on Tuesday that this will create greater flexibility for parents and greater stability for providers, whose income would fluctuate depending on shifting enrollment rates.  

“When you’re talking about 16,000 [or] 17,000 children — families move, programs have kids starting and disenrolling and enrolling,” Bye said. “We particularly heard that in more rural parts of the state, where you don’t have a ready waitlist of children because there just aren’t as many people. It really hurts the program.” 

Bye said the change will open child care providers up to millions of dollars from the state that would have previously lapsed when children moved away. 

The proposal also creates a Tri-Share pilot program in eastern Connecticut, which has suffered particularly acute child care shortages. Under the program, employers, the state and parents split the cost of child care. Electric Boat in Groton has already committed $500,000 toward child care for its employees, an amount that will be matched by the state and by parents who enroll their children. The program is funded for an additional 250 to 300 day care slots. 

‘30 years of shortfall’

But some advocates say the governor’s proposal is not enough. 

Merrill Gay, executive director of the Early Childhood Alliance, said Lamont’s budget invested only a third of the amount of money the state’s Blue Ribbon Panel had said was necessary to keep the industry afloat. The governor’s budget totals $43.3 million in comparison to a proposed $148 million from the Blue Ribbon Panel, a group of experts, advocates and lawmakers tasked with making recommendations around the future of the child care industry. 

Bye said at the news conference on Wednesday that, in discussions with Lamont, they had decided to focus their efforts on programs that could stabilize the child care centers without costing money, such as simplifying funding streams and paying per-classroom. She said this was in alignment with the Blue Ribbon Panel’s recommendation that the first year of a five-year plan be focused on structural changes. 

Lamont said he appreciated the panel’s work, but that there was a limit to how much he could invest in a single budget year. 

“I hear when it comes to day care, [and to] a lot of facets of our budget, that we’ve got to make up for 30 years of shortfall. And I can’t do that all in one or two budgets,” he said. 

He noted that the state had almost doubled its investment in child care over the last five years.

Gay told CT Examiner he was frustrated with the fiscal guardrails, a set of laws that require Connecticut to set aside a certain portion of its budget each year, limiting the amount that can be spent on services. 

“Our tax rates, compared to other states, are lower than those other states. There is room to raise additional revenue, but we’ve taken it off the table. And therefore, we’re put in a box where Early Childhood has to compete with K-12, which has to compete with higher ed, which has to compete with homelessness, with everything else,” he said.

Gay said he agreed with some of the governor’s proposals, including paying per classroom and changing the funding streams, which he said would reduce paperwork for already overworked child care staff.

“Once you have 11 kids in a preschool classroom, your costs are essentially the same as if you’ve got 18 kids in the classroom because you need two staff, and that’s the primary cost driver. So that will help at least,” he said. 

But Gay said the state’s payments for Care4Kids and other programs often came in a month behind schedule, a system he said he’d like to see fixed. The Office of Early Childhood told CT Examiner that payments depended on child care providers submitting them on time to the state. 

“We’ve got a lot of nonprofit child care providers out there having to have a line of credit at a bank because the state pays them late,” Gay said. 

Gay also noted the ongoing lack of child care workers, perhaps one of the biggest problems the state faces when it comes to early childhood education. According to Gay, there are currently 4,000 vacant child care positions, translating into hundreds of closed classrooms. 

The panel suggested investing $2 million in the workforce pipeline next year, but it was not included in the governor’s budget. Meanwhile, Gay suggested modeling a program after one implemented in Kentucky, in which early childhood educators are able to qualify for free child care. 

“That means if I’m choosing between a job at Target and a job at the child care program, one comes with free child care,” he said.. “It doesn’t solve the long-term problem of low wages, but it helps to get some more people in the door when we’ve got a desperate shortage of staff.” 

According to Gay, this change has been proposed as a bill that the Education Committee will discuss this session. 

The governor’s proposal would allow child care workers with an associate’s degree to manage a classroom if supervised by someone with a bachelor’s degree. Gay told CT Examiner that doing away with the initial requirement of a bachelor’s degree for a classroom teacher was necessary to address current staffing shortages, particularly at community child care centers. 

Gay recounted a conversation he had with UConn’s early childhood class, where he asked students whether they were considering working in a public school system versus a community preschool.  

“Everybody’s going to go work in a public school,” he said. “They took out student debt to go to UConn. They can’t afford to work for $17, $18 an hour.”

The legislature will be holding a public hearing on funding for K-12 education on Thursday at 2 p.m.


Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.

e.otte@ctexaminer.com