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    Friday, January 27, 2023

    'More than just babysitting': Child care providers push for more funding

    Thames Valley Council for Community Action programs provided care for the kids of hospital employees and other essential workers in the early days of the pandemic, and TVCCA Executive Director Deb Monahan said it's disappointing now, two years later, to be left behind.

    Monahan, Riverfront Children's Center Executive Director Sue Radway, and Child & Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut CEO Allison Blake are among those advocating for an additional $700 million in state funding for the child care industry.

    The Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance said the $700 million request includes $250 million for wage increases, $170 million for health insurance, $200 million for increased access to Care4Kids, $30 million for scholarships and loan forgiveness for early childhood education degrees, and $50 million for bonding for construction and renovation of facilities, to expand capacity.

    These three nonprofit directors — along with Maryam Elahi, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut — met with The Day Editorial Board on Monday, and their message is clear: Early childhood care is not babysitting, and having affordable child care is critical to the state's economic recovery.

    "There really is learning and teaching going on in those classrooms," Blake said. "It's more than just babysitting."

    In doing research and national outreach after American Rescue Plan Act funding was announced, Elahi said it became clear that the Community Foundation needed to invest in three areas: early childhood care, mental health, and affordable housing.

    "I think more and more about our work as system change philanthropy as opposed to Band-Aid work," Elahi said. Reflecting on what we've learned from the pandemic, she questioned whether we will "continue creating greater divides between haves and have-nots, kids who did nothing wrong by being born into a struggling family" or invest in early childhood education to "create a successful, thriving community."

    Radway said Riverfront Children's Center gets 62% of its budget from the state, 20% from parent fees and the rest from fundraising donations and grant writing, with 75 to 85% of families receiving some financial assistance. The center is competing with other providers for funding from organizations like the Community Foundation and United Way.

    At the Child and Family Agency, Blake said starting salaries are being raised in April to $15 an hour for entry-level employees with no credentials, $16.08 for those with an associate's degree, and $17.08 for those with a bachelor's degree and 12 early childhood education credits. The agency also offers a $2,000 sign-on bonus.

    But as the minimum wage goes up to $15 an hour, child care advocates say more funding is needed for staff, as retention is an issue when people with a bachelor's degree aren't making much more than minimum wage.

    "We attract but sometimes we don't retain them because the minute a school system opens up a slot, they're going there," Monahan said, since schools pay more than child care centers.

    Not having enough workers means there aren't enough slots available for children to meet demand. Riverfront, for example, is at capacity, and Radway said while 15 kids are leaving for kindergarten this year, there are more than 60 people on the waitlist.

    On top of retention issues, there are also recruitment issues, with fewer people going into early childhood programs.

    "If they don't know they're going to get a livable wage, they're not going to consider starting school," Radway said.

    Asked about advocates in the legislature for increased child care funding, Monahan pointed to Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford ("a phenomenal champion"); Rep. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague ("also very, very supportive"); and Rep. Bobby Sanchez, D-New Britain. Sanchez is co-chair of the Education Committee, and McCarty is ranking member.

    The Education Committee has introduced a bill — H.B. 5465 — that would establish a salary enhancement grant program, establish an early childhood educator loan forgiveness grant program, and expand eligibility for the Care4Kids program.

    The Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee has introduced a bill that would establish the Infant and Toddler Early Care and Family Support Initiative, which would provide grants to child care providers to subsidize infant and toddler spaces in high-need areas.

    This funding would come from a separate account within the General Fund, to be expended by the Office of Early Childhood. This bill, S.B. 487, is on the agenda for the committee's public hearing Wednesday at 9 a.m.

    e.moser@theday.com

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