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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    Day without child care rallies urge reforms in Conn.'s industry as lawmakers advance bill

    As the rain came down outside, a chorus of voices rose inside on Tuesday at the Mansfield Discovery Depot, an early child care center. Students, teachers, and child care advocates called on Gov. Ned Lamont to fix an industry they say is broken.

    "There were times as a single mom that I didn't have much. I had my three children here and we were eating day care leftovers," said Brenda Rivers Pierce, a 32-year teacher at the Depot. "We have staff here who say they cannot have children because they cannot afford the care that they provide for all other families."

    Anne Thompson Heller, a young working mother with her disabled, 3-year-old daughter Jordan by her side, thanked the crowd assembled for supporting her and her child.

    "I was scrambling, thinking I would have to probably leave my job, a job I love, a job we depend on," said Thompson Heller. "And it wasn't because it wasn't safe for her to go. It's because day care isn't an entitlement."

    Alyx Schiavone, co-director of Child Care for Connecticut's Future, which organized the rally, led the crowd in a chant calling on the governor and legislature to provide the funding needed to fix issues in the child care system, issues that advocates say are longstanding and structural.

    "We know the entire economy of Connecticut rests on the shoulders of the women who are taking care of children," said Schiavone. "We are here today because the system that we all operate in is broken. Families pay too much. Educators make too little to live. Providers can barely survive. Children can't thrive."

    Tuesday's rally was the first of 11 scheduled throughout the state in the coming days. Child Care for Connecticut's Future has similar rallies scheduled for next week in Bridgeport, Danbury, New Haven, Hartford, Norwalk, and Waterbury.

    This is the third annual series of rallies intended to increase awareness over the lack of public funding for early child care, sufficient teacher pay and affordable tuition. The rallies have drawn hundreds in prior years.

    "The rally came from a convening of parents and providers being so frustrated that for the past 30 years of early care in the history Connecticut, we would get nothing," said Eva Bermudez Zimmerman. "It would be a Band-Aid. A million here. A million there for programs that already existed. Nothing transformational. Nothing visionary. Nothing long term."

    Last year, the rallies focused on trying to get about $700 million in funds for child care. In response, Lamont convened a Blue-Ribbon Panel to develop a five-year plan for reform. This year, child care advocates say they want the state legislature to pass HB 5002, which would pump $100 million into the early childhood fund to increase pay for teachers and decrease tuition across the state.

    On Wednesday, lawmakers in the Finance Committee voted unanimously to advance the bill onto the floor of the General Assembly, where it will could be taken up, debated and voted on or sent back to another committee for review.

    Zimmerman said the bill was a continuation of last year's push to establish a dedicated Early Childhood Fund. The state legislature created a fund, separate from the General Fund, but did not approve any bonding for it.

    "The current fund is $1," said Zimmerman. "It's a little ridiculous for the legislative body to say 'Hey we did it!' And then only put a dollar in."

    The coalition is also pushing to cap child care expenses for families at 7 percent of annual family income.

    "We've had providers and families say, look, please pass the Blue Ribbon Panel's recommendations as well as significant funding," said Zimmerman. "But we're still not at a place where we feel confident the plan will pass."

    Beth Bye, commissioner for Connecticut Office of Early Childhood, came to the rally to tout the proposed increases for child care in the pending budget adjustment, which would increase funding by 90 percent.

    "Those of you who are in the room as advocates say, 'well that's enormous, isn't that great? Isn't everything fixed?'" said Bye. "No, because the structural problems in child care run deep."

    She said the first child care rally she attended was decades ago in Stamford when her daughter was 2.

    "I think we've all just got to keep working together, advocating at the federal level, the local level," said Bye. "These issues are deep and structural."

    Child care has been in dire straits recently as federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, which shored up many struggling industries during the COVID-19 pandemic, are running out. Advocates warned of a "fiscal cliff" looming that would force hundreds of child care centers to close statewide.

    The business of child care was unstable before the pandemic, advocates say, as child care jobs are historically low-paying and are primarily filled by women, particularly women of color.

    A cost analysis conducted by the University of Connecticut School of Social Work found that licensed family child care providers earn on average approximately $8.50 an hour — well below minimum wage. Low pay makes it difficult for child care centers to staff classrooms with qualified teachers, or even stay open.

    Meanwhile, most families cannot afford to pay higher tuition to offset low teacher compensation. Zimmerman said that most parents are paying between $17,000 to $24,000 a year for child care. The Economic Policy Institute ranks Connecticut as the 5th most expensive state for child care.

    "That price tag is not for a poor person. That price tag is for the everyday person," said Zimmerman. She said the poorest in Connecticut were covered by Care for Kids and other state or federal programs but most working parents made too much money to qualify.

    "If you look at just minimum wage jobs, if you're working a full time job at McDonald's working 40 hours a week or more with one child, you do not qualify for Care for Kids," said Zimmerman.

    Parents in this situation fall into what the United Way calls the ALICE bracket, meaning "Asset-Limited Income-Constrained and Employed." The United Way estimates that about 28 percent of households in Connecticut were ALICE households — living above the federal poverty line but could not afford the basics in the communities where they reside, including child care.

    "We are going to use our collective voices as if our future depends on it, because it does," said Schiavone, in a rallying cry to the crowd before leading a final call-and-response. "When I say child care you say fix! Child care!"

    "Fix!"

    "Child care!"

    "Fix!"

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