Education

CARE Act could expand access to early ed

Sandy Lyons reads to VPK students at Trinity Learning Center day care in Pensacola, Fl., Thursday, February 5, 2015. Michael Spooneybarger/ Studer Community Institute

A bill in the U.S. Congress could be a big step forward in expanding access to quality childcare for working families through a program that now helps nearly 3,000 Escambia County children.

Three Democrats — Joseph Crowley of New York and Lois Frankel of Florida in the House and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania in the Senate — are pushing the Child Care Access to Resources for Early-learning (CARE) Act.

The bill aims to ensure families with infants and toddlers living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level have access to quality childcare by 2021.

It calls for $25 billion in mandatory funding to expand the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant program.

In Escambia County, those federal block grant dollars funded $13.6 million for school readiness, a program that pays for subsidized childcare for children ages 0 to 13, as long as the parent works at least 20 hours a week and makes less than 150 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

A family of four with an income of $36,375 is eligible for the program.

KINDERGARTEN READY 66 Dash_cardSkip Housh, board member for the Early Learning Coalition of Escambia County, noted the impact such a measure could have on a community where 34 percent of kindergartners are not ready for school according to the Florida Office of Early Learning’s data analysis and child care costs can account for as much as 49 percent of the median income for a single-parent family.

Both are measures on the Studer Community Institute’s Pensacola Metro Dashboard,a set of 16 data points that gauge the economic, educational and social well-being of the community.

“In Escambia, we currently have not quite 3,000 kids enrolled in School Readiness with a waiting list,” Housh said. “We have never received an allocation from the Office of Early Learning sufficient to enroll all of the eligible children. While School Readiness started as a jobs-support program, it also provides high-quality preschool services for a lot of our kids who really need the help.”

Matthew Melmed, executive director of Zero to Three, a national nonprofit that focuses on the importance of that age range in learning, lauded the bill.

“Babies learn and develop at an astonishing rate during the first three years,” Melmed says. “This learning happens through experiences with their caregivers, whether at home or at child care. For the millions of babies who spend part of their days in child care, the quality of that environment is crucial to their healthy development and our country’s future success.”

The bill would:

—  Expand the Child Care and Development Block Grant to ensure all families with children under 4 who are living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level can access high quality child care;

— Ensure that provider payment rates are set at a level high enough to support quality child care and fair wages for child care workers; and

— Help infant and toddler child care providers in improving the quality of their programs, by strengthening the skills and competencies of the workforce.

Linda Smith, deputy assistant secretary for early childhood development at the Department of Health and Human Services, told The Hill said the federal subsidy for childcare now is around $5,500 for an infant and toddler.

The CARE Act would bump that up to near $10,000 and pay a subsidy for new children in the system at a higher rate.

Housh said he thinks it’s unlikely that any increase in School Readiness funding is likely to make it through this Congress, it is noteworthy that the attempt is being made.  

“I believe that preparing our preschoolers to be ready to learn in kindergarten is the single most important thing we can do to improve education outcomes for our kids,” he said. “According to Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman, it is also the investment in education that provides the greatest return on investment.”