Gov. Polis announces $275 million investment in state’s early childhood sector
But will these funds adequately address the needs of local child care providers and families?
On Monday, Gov. Jared Polis and the Colorado Office of Early Childhood announced plans to allocate over $275 million into the state’s early childhood sector.
The funds, which are being allocated through the federal American Rescue Plan, will help keep child care providers open, increase affordability for families and support the retention of the early childhood educator workforce, according to a press release from the governor’s office.
In the release, it specifies that $267 million will fund stabilization grants, workforce retention grants and reduced family tuition for child care. The remaining $8 million will go toward early childhood programs like home visits and community-based child abuse prevention that help reduce child abuse, improve parents’ mental health and help children be ready for school.
“In addition, these funds will be used to establish mentorship and apprenticeship programs for early childhood professionals; support the health and mental health of children, families, and providers; expand innovation grants that will help communities address challenges like the affordability and availability of child care; and help new child care providers become licensed and new and existing child care providers increase their quality level,” the press release reads.
Locally, child care providers have faced a challenging year. Faced with intense challenges around hiring qualified teachers, in the midst of a pandemic, providers have been unable to meet the high demand for services, some closing their doors for certain classrooms, schools or days of the week.
“Currently, due to staff shortages, programs have had to close classrooms and limit the days they provide care,” wrote Jeanne McQueeney, Eagle County commissioner, in an email to the Vail Daily. “It is a shame that we have fully licensed programs and classrooms that simply cannot open because there aren’t enough staff. This is impacting our economic recovery with most every business looking to hire more workers. We cannot afford to have anyone who wants to work unable to because they don’t have child care.”
Shelley Smith, who serves as the director of Early Childhood Programs at Eagle County Schools, said in August, that while the county’s 46 early-childhood programs (including both public and private providers) are licensed to serve 1,459 children, there were 369 spaces available that could not be filled because of staffing challenges.
Currently, within the district’s own early childhood program, there are 16 support staff vacancies. As a result, state requirements kept the district from opening an infant classroom, two preschool classrooms and the extended day program at Homestake Peak.
Plus, for families, affordability of care has become a large problem. According to the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments’ 2021 Regional Assessment of the Child Care Industry report, the average cost for annual child care tuition in the region for two children (an infant and a 4-year-old, is $27,055 — which accounts for 33% of the statewide median income.
“This is not viable for average income workers, limiting ability to attract talent to the field,” the report said.
The situation has gotten so dire that community leaders and local governments have started to collaborate in order to find permanent funding for early childhood programming and services.
Good solution, but not long-term
This new influx funding could ultimately help solve some of these challenges, McQueeney said, but maybe only temporarily.
“It’s wonderful that the governor recognizes the crisis that the child care sector is facing and is taking steps to address it. This funding may very well address the short term or immediate needs but doesn’t address all the long term needs,” she wrote.
Currently, the greatest need in early childhood is for higher compensation and benefits, she said.
“If we can recruit and retain child care providers, families will benefit by having more options for care,” McQueeney wrote.
She added that a portion of this funding could address the compensation needs of all early childhood programs in the county.
However, the funding “doesn’t continue past a few years,” she wrote. “Before it runs out we will need to identify a sustainable source of funding so we aren’t just delaying the crisis.”
The funding could also help provide tools for increased training, easier access to training and mentoring opportunities, which could help serve the need of providers to hire qualified staff and teachers, she wrote.
However, she warned that “without benefits and higher compensation, they aren’t likely to remain.”
A step in the right direction
Still, it appears to be a step in the right direction.
“I am hopeful that this funding will work to retain and recruit child care teachers. I am hopeful that increased compensation will reduce turnover and improve continuity of care for the children,” McQueeney wrote. “I am hopeful that our child care providers will make a ‘livable wage’ for themselves allowing them to focus on the children in their care rather than the economic stresses in their own lives.”
Smith also expressed both excitement and trepidation. She said that while she’s excited to see this level of investment in early childhood, the final impact will rely on the full details of the grants and funding streams and whether they are ongoing.
“Our most critical issue is ongoing funding from the state and/or federal government that will allow us to provide a livable wage for Early Care and Education Professionals,” Smith wrote. “I am hopeful this as well as some of the proposals in the current proposed federal budget will help us move toward providing adequate pay for the individuals who take care of our most vulnerable population.”
Plus, the funding needs to address the county’s needs are large.
Smith said that in 2016, Eagle County Schools’ Early Childhood Roadmap Report “estimated the amount needed to address the needs for Eagle County was $10 million, just for our county.”
And since then, the need has only grown.
Colorado’s Office of Early Childhood is hosting a virtual town hall, in English and in Spanish, on Thursday, Sept. 23, to further discuss how these funds will be used.
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at email@example.com.