Credit: Stock photo | U.S. Navy

Children are Maine’s future, and their earliest years are crucial in setting them on a positive trajectory for life. High-quality child care can make a difference in setting children on that successful trajectory, especially for children from low-income families.

Given how much high-quality child care can help low-income kids catch up to their higher-income peers, it should be every policymaker’s priority to make high-quality care available to every child who needs it.

Unfortunately, a number of bills pending in the Maine Legislature this winter take the wrong approach to addressing Maine’s child care challenge.

There’s legislation that would allow child care providers operating out of their homes to take care of more children without a license. The same bill would limit parents’ ability to find out about the complaints and licensing investigations child care providers have faced. It would also allow licensed child care providers to go five years — rather than two — without renewing their state licenses. Another proposal would backtrack on the state’s implementation of a stringent — and federally required — fingerprint background check for child care staff.

The rationale for these measures is that they aim to counteract a regulatory burden that has proven excessive for so many child care providers, forcing many out of the market and putting upward pressure on prices.

The number of licensed child care providers who operate out of their homes fell 29 percent between 2007 and 2016, to 1,177 from 1,658, according to Maine Department of Health and Human Services licensing data. Contrary to the arguments made by supporters of the bills to lighten the regulatory load on child care providers, however, it appears that regulatory excess was not responsible for most of these closures.

In 2015, a DHHS-commissioned survey of child care providers found that only 2 percent of those surveyed who had left the business cited “challenges in meeting regulatory requirements” as the reason. Personal reasons more commonly (16 percent) led child care providers to stop providing care.

It’s also worth noting that, as the number of in-home child care providers has been on the decline, an increase in the number of larger child care centers has helped to offset the lost capacity.

There’s no denying that the cost of child care is out of reach for too many Maine families, and that availability is too limited. The way to address those challenges, however, is not to backtrack on measures that ensure at least a baseline of quality. Maine owes its children more.

Maine used to employ a number of strategies to ensure children from low-income families had access to high-quality care.

For example, the state used to pay more than 40 child care providers across the state to set aside openings for low-income children. It used to have local organizations act as the face of the child care voucher system and handle a complicated process for child care assistance. And Maine used to offer child care centers higher reimbursement rates in exchange for accepting low-income children.

The state, in recent years, has left federal child care voucher funds unspent as challenges with affordability and availability have persisted.

In other words, there are strategies and resources the state could employ if it were serious about making high-quality child care available to children from low-income families. Those strategies don’t have to involve compromising on quality.

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