At Least a Dozen States Are Considering Free Child Care for Early Educators – EdSurge

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A program that began in Kentucky as a novel idea to rebuild the early childhood workforce — and, in effect, buoy the broader labor market — has quickly spread to states across the country.

To draw early educators back into classrooms, legislators in the Bluegrass State made a change in fall 2022 that expanded the eligibility requirements of Kentucky’s child care subsidy program to include all staff who work at least 20 hours per week in a licensed early care and education program. In effect, early childhood educators became automatically eligible for free child care for their own kids, regardless of household income.

It was an instant boon. In its first year, 3,200 Kentucky parents working in early care and education participated in the program, with some 5,600 children benefitting.

Early childhood advocates, policymakers and business leaders in other states took notice. A creative solution with immediate impacts? They wanted in.

“It blew up,” says Lauren Hogan, managing director of policy and professional advancement at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a nonprofit membership organization that advocates for high-quality early learning. “There’s a reason it’s gotten steam. It’s proven valuable.”

A year-and-a-half into Kentucky’s experiment, more than a dozen states have either launched their own programs or are seriously considering it, including Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Nebraska and Rhode Island.

If all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C., adopted a policy like Kentucky’s, more than 234,000 staff in early care and education settings with children under age 6 could benefit, according to an estimate from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.

The premise of the initiative is simple: Better-staffed early care and education programs will increase the supply of child care, allowing more parents to re-enter the workforce. But the field has struggled to retain and attract staff.

Over the last few years, amid the pandemic and rising inflation, many early educators left the field because they found they could make more money elsewhere. Everyone from Amazon to Target to Chick-fil-A was offering higher wages. Child care providers, already operating on the tiniest of margins and charging families more than they can reasonably afford, simply couldn’t compete.

The result was understaffed early care and education programs, leading to closed classrooms and more families without access to care.

Kentucky’s approach works because it gives early care and education providers a tool to retain the staff they have and sweeten the deal for prospective educators.

“If you can’t directly increase the money in folks’ pockets, you can at least reduce their costs,” explains Hogan. “A lot of them have child care costs.”

Beyond how attractive it is for the economy, the program is also snuffing out a bitter irony that has long persisted in the field: Those who provide child care can seldom afford it themselves.

“Some of our educators can’t even pay for their own children to go to the program where they work, and that just doesn’t make sense,” says Lisa Hildebrand, executive director of the Rhode Island Association for the Education of Young Children. “Now, there is a way for them to be able to afford that.”

Rhode Island is eight months into a year-long, $4 million pilot of a program modeled on Kentucky’s — one that Hildebrand hopes will be renewed in the state legislature come June.

There is certainly evidence to support its continuation, she shares.

As of March, 475 children were participating in the pilot program. Their parents work across 162 different center- and home-based early education programs throughout Rhode Island.

Of those participating, 23 percent were already eligible for the state’s existing income-based Child Care Assistance Program. But more than three-fourths have had child care expenses waived through the pilot. (Rhode Island’s program differs from Kentucky’s in that it does have an income cap, just one that is notably higher than that available to other families in the state.)

Providers have shared that they’ve been able to bring back former classroom teachers and attract new ones to their programs, which is a huge relief to the sector, Hildebrand says.

“Staffing right now is at such a critical level [for some providers] that if they lose one teacher it means closing a classroom with a large number of children,” she explains. “We [already] have long wait lists, families waiting years for a slot. That’s less people in the workforce.”

In a survey conducted by the Rhode Island Department of Human Services, which administers the program, one provider called the pilot “life changing” for staff with young children. Others mentioned an influx of job applicants and new hires who are experienced and excited to work in the field — neither of which is a given in the underpaid profession.

Another provider said, “This has been an amazing experience. We were able to attract a top-notch toddler teacher who had chosen to stay home because the cost of child care was too high in comparison to her income.”

“Categorical eligibility” for child care workers is a rare policy solution that “can be embraced by red states and blue states,” notes Hogan.

In Nebraska, a bipartisan group of legislators has been pushing for a bill with expanded eligibility for early care and education staff this legislative session.

“We are in a workforce crisis in Nebraska, and we’re in a child care crisis,” says Katie Bass, data and policy research advisor at First Five Nebraska, a bipartisan public policy organization focused on expanding opportunities in the early years. “We cannot solve our workforce crisis without solving our child care crisis.”

The Nebraska bill ultimately did not pass before the end of the session in mid-April — there just wasn’t enough money this time, Bass explains, but says “it’s certainly not stopping here.”

Representatives from conservative and liberal groups alike testified in favor of the program. The bill’s sponsor, State Sen. John Fredrickson, intends to reintroduce the legislation in the next session, which begins in January 2025, Bass says. In the meantime, he has introduced an interim study to evaluate the different approaches other states are taking and determine the version that will best suit early educators in Nebraska.

“It’s kind of unprecedented,” Bass says of the bill’s wide base of supporters. “The lack of child care is affecting every single sector’s ability to operate.”

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