Over the past decade, a lack of infrastructure and poor funding decisions have negatively affected Maine’s child care sector. That is according to Judy Reidt-Parker, director of the national policy team at the Ounce of Prevention Fund.
She told Morning Edition Host Irwin Gratz that other New England states are looking to address those issues, including Rhode Island, which has created a child care “facilities fund.”
This story is part of Maine Public’s Deep Dive on child care. To see the rest of the series, visit mainepublic.org/childcare.
Reidt-Parker: So in New England, we have very old building stock, and building a building as a child care provider is incredibly expensive. I think the only time that really happens is if it’s a very large center. So Rhode Island has a facilities fund, and they can be very low-interest loans or they can be grants depending on the need. In Maine, we did this in the early 2000s. We had something called the Early Learning Opportunity Grant that was federal money. These were grants, and they were expected to just continue in the field for at least five years in return for having this funding. So a similar sort of thing, but in Rhode Island it’s permanent. And it’s part of a state investment.
Gratz: How about some of the other states?
Connecticut also has very strong resources. One thing that they have that is pretty significant connected to professional development is they have a very solid early childhood mental health consultation program. So if there is a child who has experienced trauma they don’t come to you and say, ‘Oh, I had this terrible experience, and life is so hard,' right? What they do is they let you know through their behavior. In Connecticut, they have supports where if a child is having behavioral challenges in a child care setting, there will be a mental health consultant, he’ll come and do an observation, they might identify that the child needs some specialized therapy, but they might also give the provider some hints about ways that they might restructure the classroom environment, or different ways to respond so that the child’s behavior is redirected or de-escalated.
I know a lot of times we think about Maine as being a lot more progressive about social services than our neighbor, New Hampshire. I guess I’m wondering, how does New Hampshire deal with child care issues compared to us?
New Hampshire has just recently, probably over the past three years, had a significant uptick in their interest in investment in early childhood, and in child care in particular. One of the interesting things that they passed in this past legislative session was, in an attempt to address the opioid crisis for families, they used the definition of work to be defined as a family participating in addiction recovery. So that makes families eligible for the child care subsidy. And this year, they’re looking at grandparents caring for grandchildren. For the child care subsidy, it’s a block grant, it’s incredibly flexible, and states can define work in any way they choose. So in this way, they took a look at the circumstances in their state, they recognized they had a problem and that families needed help. But it gives the parent a great deal of confidence that when they are in their sessions, in their therapeutic sessions, their child is being well cared for.
And then there’s Massachusetts.
One of the things that Massachusetts does incredibly well is they use grants and contracts for their child care subsidy. In the past, we had a combination of child care subsidy vouchers, which is a portable subsidy that the parent carries with them to whatever provider, and then there were contracted slots, and those contracted slots were used, again, to provide a stability of care, possibly to make sure that there was a state investment in an age group that was underserved, like infants and toddlers, or children with special needs. So we once had a set of contracts with about 20 different providers across the state. And Massachusetts does that as well. And Massachusetts has done an incredibly good job with their contracts of making sure that there are strings attached to the money. So if you’re going to have this guaranteed funding to keep your program stable, and you’re going to reserve a set of slots for these low-income families, you’re also going to make sure that these low-income families have access to comprehensive services. So if they need support in finding housing, you’re going to figure out how to do that. If they need support in interviewing for jobs, you’re going to have the right staff and the right kind of programs to help someone do that.
So at some level, this is money question. There may be the block grant available, but as you pointed out, I think earlier, there needs to be some matching commitment on the part of the state. So how expensive is it for these states to provide these services?
It’s not a small commitment. To do it well, to do it properly, it’s a significant amount of money. The cost of not investing, particularly in child care, means that the economy itself slows down. There was actually a study done here on the economic impact of child care, and it’s significant. Not only are the providers buying supplies and foods to provide the care, but it’s also making it possible for families to have enough income to be able to live successfully and provide well for their children. Until we figure out how to better align the child care market, we will just continue to limp along.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Maine Public’s Deep Dive: Childcare in Maine is made possible, in part, by the John T. Gorman Foundation and United Way's Women United.