On Thursday, March 16, 2023 the League of Women Voters of Howard County held a panel discussion about current Child Care Resources and Challenges presented by the Pre-K expansion in the Blueprint for Education. We learned a great deal from the discussion, which lasted 90 minutes. If you have time, we encourage you to watch the video on our You Tube channel. In the meantime, we have prepared an Executive Summary of the highlights of the discussion.
Our panelists included:
- Bronwyn Bates, Coordinator of the HCC Workforce Development Program;
- Georgia Ferentinos from the Howard County Office of Children and Families;
- Tracy Broccolino, President of the Community Action Council of Howard County;
- Stephanie Geddie from HCPSS’ Early Childhood Programs; and
- Christina Peusch, the Executive Director of the Maryland State Child Care Association.
- Jessica Feldmark, Delegate from District 12
Some background facts from the presentation:
- 90% of a child’s brain development occurs prior to age five. Money spent on high quality preschool education gives the greatest value for long term academic success compared to other academic interventions and program spending.
- Sufficient high quality child care options for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers under age 5 is needed by families so that parents (especially single parents) may continue to work. There are 2.3 million fewer women in our national workforce than in March 2020. Labor shortages continue to plague our economy.
- Affordable child care remains a challenge for families. The Maryland Family Network reports that care for an infant or preschooler in Howard County costs about $15,000 per year, per child. Recipients of Child Care Scholarships report some difficulty finding openings with providers who accept the scholarships. For comparison, undergraduate tuition at the University of Maryland costs less than $12,000 per year.
- According to the US Department of Labor’s June 2022 report, Maryland has lost 25% of our Child Care workforce since 2019. This is the highest rate of loss of any state in the country.
- We have lost nearly a 1000 licensed child care programs in Maryland, representing a 10-12% reduction since March 2020. Providers closed their businesses during the pandemic and workers have migrated to other employment.
- The laws and regulations governing child care in Maryland specify strict staffing ratios. One home provider may care for up to eight children, however only two may be under the age of two. A child care center may have six children under two, staffed by two adults, per infant room. Strict ratios of adults to children also apply for pre-schoolers. If a program is not staffed at the appropriate level, it must close.
- As of 2021, the average Child Care Center Director in Maryland made about $41,000 annually. Preschool teachers who work in centers made an average of $27,000 annually, while assistants/aides made about $18,000.
While everyone enthusiastically supports the Pre-K expansion initiative, some concerns surfaced regarding stress points on Child Care Services:
Child Care Scholarships remain a stress point because of the way the program is structured. Fewer than half of providers participate in this program. Providers who do participate must designate a specific number of their “slots” for scholarship recipients, and must leave those slots open and unfilled if not enough families receiving scholarships choose their services. If those places are not filled, the provider loses the scholarship money and is still not permitted to fill the vacancies with paying students, resulting in decreased income.. However, the costs of the program, including staff salaries, rent, and utilities, remain constant. This provision disincentivizes providers from participating in the Child Care Scholarship program, and is an inefficient underutilization of available child care resources. Meanwhile, we have heard from parents who received the scholarship but could not find a provider with space for their child.
Identifying sufficient numbers of qualified teachers for the Pre-K Expansion is a well-recognized stress point. Enrollment in education degree programs has dropped 20% in Maryland, and experienced teachers are leaving the field. There will not be enough qualified Early Childhood educators in Maryland to fulfill the Blueprint plan without incorporating the existing Preschool providers into the plan, although it is likely that shortages of qualified teachers will persist. Most preschool teachers hold two-or-four-year degrees, and have received many hours of training. MSDE has policies authorizing alternative paths to teacher certification for candidates with degrees and experience in other fields, requiring work under a mentor in a public school and additional courses for certification, normally a two-year process. Classes are often offered at lower cost to the candidates.
- The most helpful change that could be incorporated into new certification processes for Early Childhood Educators is to permit experienced candidates for certification to continue to work in their non-public preschool programs, supervised by mentor teachers from the LEA. Forcing them to move to public schools to earn certification will probably result in the closure of existing preschools and a net loss of Pre-K enrollment capacity.
- There is a need to ensure that preschool teachers and childcare providers who have less than 10 years experience are not excluded from the pool of Pre-K teacher candidates.
- There is a need for current providers to earn the credentials they need at low or no cost within two or three years, with credit given for prior experience, training, and by exam as part of the process. This should extend to interested, qualified home care providers.
- There is reason to consider what level of experience and education is sufficient to qualify (grandfather) experienced preschool teachers and child care providers as Early Childhood Educators, without need for further education and training.
Raising teacher pay and increasing class sizes will strain the budgets of parents, private child care centers, and some public providers. The mixed delivery system envisioned for the Pre-K Expansion is very much a work in progress, and will be for some time. The proposed teacher salary for the private schools and centers participating in the rollout is more than double what those teachers typically earn now. Private preschools that participate in the Pre-K expansion are mandated to increase teacher pay to achieve parity with public school salaries.
- Tuition costs at private preschools must increase to pay the increased salaries, and some families will choose not to enroll their children as a result. Full salaries for staff must be paid, even if classes are not full, placing a strain on the budget.
- Providers that do not participate in the Pre-K expansion or cannot increase staff pay will face increased staff attrition, declining enrollment and income, and go out of business, resulting in a net loss of available child care openings at all ages, from birth to five.
- Home care providers, who give most of the care to infants and toddlers, cannot sustain a viable business model providing care only for children under age 4, while keeping costs for parents at the current level. Losing home child care businesses would reduce options for parents of children under age two.
The Pre-K Expansion is already straining the resources of local school systems, who have filed for waivers because they cannot find sufficient staff to fill the requirements of the Blueprint on the current schedule, let alone increase their share of students from 30% to 50% of the total within a few years. The numbers we saw for Howard County indicate they would have to more than double the number of students they currently serve to attain that goal.
- The Early Childhood programs throughout Maryland will not only need to hire thousands of Early Childhood teachers and assistants, they will also have to review the qualifications of the private preschool teachers who apply to participate in the Pre-K Expansion, mentor those who do not yet qualify, and provide staff training.
- Each system will have to locate and prepare suitable space for their new Pre-K students and furnish each class with appropriate instructional materials and equipment.
Implementing the Blueprint for Education with fidelity is a huge challenge, a most worthy goal, and in the long run will pay enormous dividends to the people of Maryland. In the short term, it will be difficult to manage this rapid, enormous change without breaking a few things on the way. We cannot afford to let our private child care providers become casualties in the process.
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