As child care providers recover from the pandemic and struggle to find qualified staff, state lawmakers are introducing a raft of bills, with the support of both presiding officers, that aim to bolster child care capacity in Maryland.
There are 855 fewer child care providers in Maryland than in March 2020, according to the Maryland Early Childhood Advisory Council.
During a press conference on Thursday, Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore) said that what happens to children when they are younger than five years old impacts them more than what happens at any other period in their lives.
“We have got to make sure that Maryland’s great child care system is as effective and flourishing as it was prior to the pandemic, with additional opportunities to invest,” Ferguson said.
The pandemic turned a spotlight on a problem within the child care sector that is getting worse, child care advocates said.
Even before the pandemic, child care was not available to everyone who needed it, because of its cost and limited availability. And child care workers have been hard to find, in part, because it is some of the lowest paid work in the country.
“The business model is failing without investments,” Christina Peusch, executive director of the Maryland State Childcare Association, said in an interview.
Having reliable child care is critical in addressing workforce shortages, especially among women, said House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County).
The 2021 economy experienced high labor shortages due to a mix of health concerns, caregiving responsibilities and a desire for higher wages.
“The package of bills takes the necessary steps to increase our child care capacity across the state, stabilizes our workforce and keeps our economy going strong,” Jones said.
Improving Child Care Scholarships:
Del. Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery) is sponsoring a bill that would allow child care providers to presume families who apply for the state’s Child Care Scholarship Program are eligible and would allow them to enroll in child care while immediately the Maryland State Department of Education reviews their applications.
And if MSDE determines that the family is not eligible for a scholarship that offsets the cost of child care for low-income families, the family would not be responsible for paying for the application review period.
“The presumptive eligibility period basically becomes part of your application period, so as long as your application is being reviewed by the state agency, you are eligible for those subsides,” Solomon said.
Costs during that presumed eligibility period would be paid with federal funds, Solomon said.
Currently, it can take up to 90 days for MSDE to approve a child care scholarship application, Solomon said.
He said his legislation would simplify and streamline the child care scholarship application to ensure that it is accessible to all families.
As the application reads right now, “you almost need a master’s degree to figure out how to fill it out,” Solomon said.
Child care advocates have criticized the scholarship program for being too confusing for families, especially those in immigrant communities, and MSDE has been criticized for not being responsive enough when called for help.
Solomon’s bill also would allow families who qualify for temporary cash assistance and supplemental security income to automatically qualify for the child care scholarship, as well as other benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and housing vouchers.
When a scholarship is approved, MSDE would be required to pay child care providers the full scholarship amount within ten days.
“Providers get sort of lost in this sea of paperwork, and if you’re a small business and you’re operating on the margins, getting delayed [scholarship] payments for two or three students can mean the difference between making a payroll or not,” Solomon said.
To increase the number of affordable child care slots, the Maryland Child Care Working Families Act, sponsored by Del. Pamela E. Queen (D-Montgomery), would cap the cost of child care and allow families whose total annual household income does not exceed 85% of the state’s median income to get subsidized child care. The median household income in Maryland is $84,805, according to the US Census Bureau.
This proposal comes while Congress is considering President Biden’s Build Back Better plan. The president’s plan would expand child care assistance so that most families spend no more than 7% of their income on child care and that families that earn 75% of their state’s median income would pay nothing. The US House passed part of Biden’s plan but most social programs in it appeared to be permanently stalled in the Senate.
Supporting Child Care Providers:
To attract more workers to child care jobs, lawmakers are introducing a bill that would require the governor to include $16 million in the annual budget to offer retention and new-hire bonuses to child care workers on a first-come, first-served basis starting in fiscal year 2024.
Child care providers face challenges finding enough workers because low pay and little job stability lead to high turnover. In a national survey of 7,500 providers, 78% said that low wages were the main recruitment challenge.
Median hourly pay for a child care worker in Maryland is $11.59, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.
“We’re losing programs and staff at an alarming rate,” said Senate Majority Leader Nancy King (D-Montgomery), the sponsor of the bill. “As our local economy begins to get back to pre-pandemic labor levels, the need for safe, quality child care is of the utmost importance.”
To increase access to and availability of child care, Sen. Katie Fry Hester (D-Carroll) is proposing a bill that would establish a grant program to support child care providers who are in danger of closing their businesses within the next year. It would require MSDE to award grants — from $1,000 and $50,000 a year — within three months after a child care provider submits a qualifying application.
“This provides a stability for children and parents we have longed for since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Fry Hester said.
The federal American Rescue Plan distributed $309 million to Maryland specifically for child care stabilization grants to help providers stay open. The Maryland State Department of Education plans to distribute the remaining funds by March.
In his proposed fiscal 2023 budget, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) supplemented the federal funds with $50 million from state funds for child care stabilization grants.
Lawmakers also are proposing a bill that would provide no-interest loans for capital expenses to child care providers who participate in the Child Care Scholarship Program. The funds would go first to child care centers in rural areas, communities with high poverty rates, and child care deserts, Solomon said.
Another proposal would provide specialized child care to children under six years old who have developmental delays, physical disabilities or delays in social, emotional or behavioral functions. It would require the governor to put at least $45,000 in the annual budget for each child who participates in this program.
Last month, State Comptroller Peter VR Franchot, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, called on Hogan and state legislators to invest $500 million from the state’s surplus to help child care providers and make child care more affordable.
When Ferguson was asked how the state would fund the programs laid out in the child care legislation package, he pointed to the state’s $4.6 billion surplus.
“We’re in a fortunate place to be able to invest resources in the things that matter the most — infrastructure for child care is one of those important sectors that we have to bolster for Maryland’s economy to rebound,” Ferguson said.
Peusch said that this slate of child care bills marks “amazing progress.”
“We are essential to the economy and we have to rebuild a much stronger system and this is certainly a step in the right direction,” she said. “Now we need to sustain it…this is not a one and done — this has to continue to support families and the children and the economy.”