State Legislators Seek Solutions to Stubborn Childcare Shortage

State Capitol, Hartford, CT (CT Examiner)


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HARTFORD — When Lynette Mendoza, of Waterbury, tried getting child care for her newborn daughter in January, she encountered the child care shortage that has plagued Connecticut since the pandemic. 

Mendoza ended up on three different waitlists before she found a home provider.

“Unfortunately, the cost of the center is $250 a week. That’s about $13,000 per year, which is a cost I can’t afford out of pocket,” Mendoza told legislators during a Thursday news conference discussing a bill by House Democrats to allocate more money for early child care.  

Mendoza was able to secure financial assistance through Care4Kids, the state’s child care subsidy program. However, after getting laid off from her job, her subsidy was jeopardized. She ultimately obtained a seat through Head Start, a federal child care program; otherwise, she said, she would have been back on a waitlist.  

Lawmakers have been trying to direct additional funds toward an industry suffering from low wages and a chronic worker shortage. But in a year of budget constraints, it’s been difficult to reach consensus over the source of that money.

In February, Gov. Ned Lamont announced a proposal to remove $36 million from a $150 million block of funds that the legislature set aside for K-12 schools. His budget was widely criticized by child care advocates and members of the legislature’s Education Committee, who said child care should not be pitted against the elementary and secondary schools. 

Instead, House Democrats want to take up to $50 million from the General Fund surplus and use up to $50 million in bonding to create a non-lapsing child care fund. The fund was originally meant to store private philanthropic donations toward early childhood education. 

Speaker of the House Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said there were multiple avenues the legislature could consider to fund child care — using the budget reserve fund’s annual interest (equivalent to $175 million this year), diverting a portion of surplus dollars or agreeing to match private donations of up to $15 million annually. 

“Unfortunately, we can’t just write a check for $2 trillion and fund it forever in perpetuity, but we can begin to make down payments on it. And that’s how you make slow and steady progress. And if we do that for five or six years, we’ll have a robust fund, we’ll have revenue streams that are real and permanent. And you will have increased slots, we’ll pay people more, and we’ll get access to child care that’s so sorely needed,” Ritter said. 

The bill creates an advisory commission that would be responsible for making recommendations about how the money, called the Early Childhood Care and Education Fund, would be spent. The committee would include multiple early child care providers, and would be required to submit a report to the legislature in 2026 about how to use the funds.

“The task of the advisory commission associated with the Early Childhood Care and Education Fund is really to assess, over 10 years, where should those investments go and really provide a roadmap for what those funds can be used for to make the greatest impact,” State Rep. Kate Farrar, D-West Hartford, said. 

Farrar said the legislature examined a report by the Blue Ribbon Panel on Childcare as a guide for potential investments, but neither the governor’s nor the legislators’ proposals met the report’s suggested funding of $148 million for child care in fiscal year 2025.  

Farrar told CT Examiner that the $50 million from the General Fund would be taken from its expected surplus, and would not require changes to the current fiscal guardrails. The Early Childhood Fund is currently off-budget, but she said the legislature could decide next session whether to add it back in.

The proposal has received bipartisan support. State Rep. Rachel Chaleski, R-Danbury, spoke in favor of the bill, saying it would make a particular difference for families who earn incomes just above the poverty level. 

“A recent report estimates that the survival budget for a family of four would necessitate paying about one quarter of their monthly income on child care, nearly two times as much as their housing costs,” Chaleski said. “Supporting the early child care sector can have an immense impact across the board and ultimately lead to an overall thriving economy to the benefit of all Connecticut residents.”

But State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, was more cautious. 

Cheeseman told CT Examiner that she understood the need for affordable child care, but echoed the concerns of Office of Policy Management Secretary Jeffrey Beckam about the sustainability of funding a program outside the fiscal guardrails. 

“I share the excitement of the advocates for something that would help us solve our child care problem, but I have concerns in doing it in a way that appears to set up a fund outside the budget, and is not subject to the same rules that normally appropriated funds would have,” she said. 

‘A downward spiral’ 

People who testified at a public hearing following the news conference also recounted issues of space shortages, waitlists, low wages for workers and rising costs for families. 

Merrill Gay, executive director of the Early Childhood Alliance, said there were 4,000 vacancies in the child care industry, representing one in seven positions. 

“We have this situation where they are stuck in a downward spiral, because their overhead costs are making up a larger share of their expenses, their revenue is not as high as it should be and they can’t get back up to break even because they can’t get the staff in to be able to open up the classrooms and get more tuition revenue,” she said. 

Gay also noted that private child care costs had increased by 30 percent in the last four years, and administrative barriers to the Care4Kids program led to about 60 percent of applicants being denied. 

An interactive map created with data from 211ChildCare shows that in all but two Connecticut towns, families are paying more than 7 percent of their income on child care, the amount recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In Hartford and Bridgeport, the cost of child care is close to a quarter of a family’s median income. 

Maria Amado, owner of Green World Day Care in Hartford, told CT Examiner that if a parent loses a job and their Care4Kids subsidies, she tries to direct them to public schools that offer day care programs. But for parents with irregular work hours, she said the fixed school schedules could pose a challenge.

Amado said parents waitlisted for Birth to Three programs also often seek her help with child care, particularly for children with language difficulties or autism. She said she’s unable to serve these children due to the lack of staff and expertise.

Amado told legislators that they needed to “restructure the logistics [and] everything that has to do with family child care,” noting the low pay in the field. 

The bill requires the Office of Early Childhood to create a grant for early child care providers who serve “high-needs populations” to supplement their staff wages, which would be made available in August. 

Office of Early Childhood Commissioner Beth Bye, spoke in favor of the governor’s original plan in written testimony, saying it aligned with many of the Blue Ribbon Panel’s recommendations, such as stabilization grants for child care providers and creating a unified funding system. 

“We urge the legislature to support the Blue Ribbon plan recommendations, as funded within the governor’s budget, rather than layering on another plan,” Bye wrote. 

The bill does include one of Lamont’s initial proposals — the establishment of a Tri-Share Program in New London County, where employers, families and the state would each pay a share of the cost of child care. 

“Right now, there’s thousands of open jobs in New London County — in the defense industry, manufacturing industry, hospitality industry. Some of the reasons for that is that individuals that live in that area can’t afford to find child care to enter the workforce,” said Christopher Davis, vice president of public policy for the Connecticut Business and Industries Association, which supports the bill. 

But Farrar also acknowledged that this program — modeled after similar programs in North Carolina and Michigan — would not work for all employers and that the state would need to ensure that care was accessible to all families. 

Cheeseman told CT Examiner she wants to find a “middle ground” between the governor’s proposal and the House Democrats’ bill. She said the Tri-Share Program for New London County, which relied on securing funding from private organizations, was a good model. 

“Given that the resources of the state are not endless, I believe any solution has to involve not only the nonprofit sector who are supplying these services, but also the business community,” she said.  

Building the brain

Georgia Goldbern, executive director of the Hope Child Development Center and co-founder of CERCLE, a network of providers serving children of color, underscored the importance of investing in children at an early age in order to reap future benefits.

“Instead of taking 10 percent or a minimal amount of money to build the brain at the most critical time that is necessary for lifelong learning for these children, we are basically investing significantly more in these early learning years so that the remediation that we have to do in special education or the prison pipeline — all of those things will be deemed moot because we will have addressed the issue that is critical for these children,” Goldberg said.

State Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, said that knowledge had to be central to the legislature’s understanding of this problem. 

“Statistically it has been shown that you are behind in kindergarten, you’re likely not reading by third grade, you’re likely not graduating with skills that this economy requires,” he said. “You’re essentially dooming that child to a life of substandard income, probably living in a community where their chances of being incarcerated are greater, their life spans are shorter. And in many respects we’re OK with it, in either our ignorance or our unwillingness, even if we are aware, to do anything about it.”

But Fonfara also expressed doubt that another program would make a difference for children with the highest needs. He recalled how 30 years ago, he was shown drawings made by children who attended preschool compared to those of children who did not. 

“The differences were dramatic, and I suspect we’re no better off today, after millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars — and if not worse,” he said. 

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.