Editorial: The time is now for Indiana to fund child care as state infrastructure

0
355

The (Fort Wayne) Journal Gazette

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 included $23.97 billion in child care provider grants to defray business costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. That funding helped steady child care operations so they could continue providing services during a time of economic uncertainty.

With the last of that money expiring this month, an estimated 70,000 child care programs in the U.S. could close as a result, according to a study by the Century Foundation, one of the oldest policy research institutions in the country. The funding loss could cause 3.2 million children to lose care, the foundation reported, which would translate to $10.6 billion in lost economic activity.

Child care is a major economic issue for families with children and for care providers. The average cost for an infant in child care is about $12,000 annually at a child care center, and between $8,000 and $9,000 for a preschooler, said Allie Sutherland, the Northeast Indiana Regional Coalition coordinator and child development specialist for the Bridge of Grace Compassionate Ministries Center.

For employers, developers and business advocates, it’s an infrastructure issue that’s keeping hundreds of thousands of Americans from participating in the workforce or furthering their education. Concern has grown so great that expansion of prekindergarten education programs is a goal of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce’s “Indiana Prosperity 2035: A Vision for Economic Acceleration,” a long-term fiscal plan for the state.

“We are relying on parents to pay for the entire cost of child care, and parents just cannot afford it,” Sutherland told The Journal Gazette.

State lawmakers broadly expanded the Choice Scholarship Program in the most recent legislative session, making some 95,000 students eligible for school vouchers by 2025. A family of four making as much as $220,000 annually now qualifies for full Choice Scholarships.

For child care, a family of four making about $45,000 a year is eligible for On My Way Pre-K, a state program providing access to high-quality preschools to students.

“The main issue that we are seeing, as far as child care providers in Indiana and Allen County specifically, is just the need for funding to help support programs,” Deondra Steward, owner/operator of Fort Wayne’s Unique Cherubs Family Childcare, told The Journal Gazette. “The state has put more funding and time into getting those resources for family providers, but it’s hard to do training if it’s in the middle of the day or outside of the city.”

Steward testified before the legislature’s Interim Study Committee on Public Health, Behavioral Health and Human Services last month. She told committee members home child care programs such as hers require funding for business training, grant writing and help with navigating the process of being a child care provider.

According to the federal Administration for Children & Families, 3,270 Hoosier child care programs received stabilization support through ARPA, impacting up to 157,100 children. On average, child care centers received $315,900 and providers in family homes collected $47,500.

Steward said those state grants were a lifeline for her business.

The next steps in Indiana’s prekindergarten program evolution must be incentives for public and private investments to expand quality preschool programs in less-populated counties. They also should include financial aid for early childhood educators through scholarships and small-business grants to increase the number of instructors, who in Indiana were paid an average of $12.84 per hour according to a 2020 report by the University of California-Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.

Roads, bridges, schools and utilities are the physical and organizational structures needed for society’s operation. Indiana can only succeed if all Hoosiers have access to taxpayer-supported infrastructure, which must include quality child care. Working parents, early childhood educators, employers and business advocates are demanding it.

Indiana’s children are frequently touted as our state’s greatest resource. It’s time we invested in that resource, especially at the earliest ages where the effect on childhood development and educational preparation can be most profound. It’s a matter of priorities.