by LAURA GLESBY | Feb 28, 2022 12:21 pm
Georgia Goldburn: "Stunned and appalled" at governor's budget.
Early childhood centers are warning of a crisis that could lead to mass closures and skyrocketing fees, if the government doesn’t act soon.
Advocates and educators rallied to testify before the state legislature’s Public Health and Children’s committees all day on Friday, urging the passage of a “concept bill” that calls for more funding for early childhood centers and affiliated behavioral health care resources for young children. While the proposal (Senate Bill 2) did not specify any amount of funding, childcare workers and activists called for an investment of $700 million into the industry.
In a recent poll of more than 300 childcare centers, the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance found that 62 percent are operating with a deficit, according to the organization’s executive director, Merrill Gay.
Staffing shortages have affected an overwhelming majority of the state’s childcare centers, Gay said, with 89 percent reporting that they have struggled to hire within the last six months; 80 percent reporting that they are currently shortstaffed; and 57 percent reporting that they have closed at least one classroom as a result.
Angela Russell, a home daycare provider and parent based in New Haven, emphasized the emotional toll of the childcare industry’s precarity. Ahead of her testimony, “I became flooded with memories of how difficult and stressful it was for me as a parent who wanted those caring for my children to be cared for,” she said. That stress carried through her role “as a provider: how I could best meet the holistic needs, spiritual, mental, emotional, social, and physical, of every child.”
This testimony arrived on the heels of Gov. Ned Lamont’s recent budget proposal, which critics said would not allocate enough funding for childcare and preschool centers facing existential financial instability.
Lamont has allocated $10.8 million of the state government’s American Rescue Plan funds — 0.4 percent — toward early childhood in FY 2022, and none in FY 2023, 2024, or 2025, according to Lauren Ruth, the research and policy director at CT Voices For Children. And that funding is “time limited,” Ruth noted, not a long-term investment.
“The anger is palpable in the childcare community,” said Georgia Goldburn, who runs the Hope For New Haven child development center in Wooster Square and co-leads the childcare advocacy organization Cercle.
“We are absolutely stunned and appalled at the governor’s glaring oversight of an industry that, we have communicated in no uncertain terms to the governor, is teetering on the brink of collapse.”
Hope For New Haven already has a long waitlist, Goldburn said. “Every day we get phone calls for children who need childcare.”
As Gay put it, “The childcare industry is collapsing.”
High-quality early childhood education has widely demonstrated impacts on children’s long-term success, including emotional and mental health. A contracted childcare system would affect children’s development across the state, as well as the educators who depend on the industry for their livelihoods and the parents who rely on childcare in order to work.
A childcare crisis would especially affect income-burdened families, Ruth explained. “When [childcare centers are] not receiving adequate funding through the state, those costs are shifted to families, which means that there will be some families that can shoulder the costs and there will be other families that can’t,” Ruth said.
Parents who can’t bear those additional costs may need to either choose a less-than-ideal childcare facility for their children — one that isn’t licensed, or that’s far from their home — or drop out of the workforce altogether.
“It seems like the people that’s gonna get hit the worst is going to be our community,” said activist Shirley Lawrence at the Newhallville Community Management Team meeting this past Tuesday, where Goldburn raised alarm about the crisis.
Pandemic Exacerbates Long-Brewing Problem
Angela Russell and Eva Bermúdez Zimmerman testify.
During the pandemic, early educators’ health risks and burnout rates have amplified — but the strains on the childcare system began long before Covid-19, advocates said. The early childhood sector is notorious for its low pay.
Over the last two decades, the state has made an effort to professionalize the field through more stringent accreditation standards. Now, many childcare workers and early educators are required to obtain an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, while compensation has remained at the minimum wage for entry-level workers. “More likely than not, they’re earning minimum wage, and they are doing this minimum wage job without any benefits,” Goldburn observed. “Many of them are accessing benefits from the state because their income is so low.”
In Connecticut, childcare workers earn an average of $26,800, and preschool teachers earn an average of $40,150, according to the U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services’ Office of Childcare. In 2020, the Associated Press reported that across the country, Black early educators earn $0.78 for every dollar that white early educators make.
“It’s a lot more lucrative to teach kindergarten than to teach preschool,” Ruth said. Many early educators undergo the training to work with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, and then move on to elementary school positions because of the higher compensation.
While minimum wage has risen over the years, funding for childcare centers — which are frequently small businesses — has lagged. Gay noted that school readiness programs last received a funding boost in 2015, when the minimum wage was $9.50 per hour. Now, the minimum wage is $13 and rising. (Several advocates stressed that the rising wages were much needed, but that early care centers lacked commensurate funding.)
Meanwhile, wages have spiked during the pandemic as larger corporations like Amazon, McDonald’s, and Target have tried to attract more employees — leaving early childhood centers struggling to compete. An added pandemic layer is the fact that children under 5 still do not qualify for Covid-19 vaccinations, heightening the risk and stress for early care workers.
Goldburn said she has struggled to convince educational institutions to keep early childhood training programs open because of the low demand. “There is no pipeline at all,” she said.
At Friday’s public hearing, a bipartisan group of state legislators expressed support for expanding childcare and mental health resources for children.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt about the legislation you’ll be hearing about today is perhaps one of the most important things we can do as legislators,” said Westport State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg in opening remarks.
Eva Bermúdez Zimmerman, the director of childcare and organizing at CSEA SEIU Local 2001, told state legislators that the instability of the industry has taken an “emotional toll” on everyone connected to early care: “the stress on the parent who can’t provide [tuition], the stress on the provider who can’t afford having a child attend for free, the stress on the assistant who’s making minimum wage.”
The bill does not pinpoint specific amounts to allocate toward childcare and early childhood behavioral health, but several advocates called for the state to provide $700 million of funding to the industry.
Angela Russell, the Whalley Avenue-based home provider who testified in the company of pastel bird and elephant decals on the wall behind her, was one of those advocates. “The struggle to provide the best version of a well-resourced system will continue without the necessary investments,” said Russell, who is a former city alder.