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Jason Judd is the executive director of Educate Maine and a member of the business organization ReadyNation. 

The past two years have made it undeniably clear how important child care is to the functioning of our economy. Parents have juggled child rearing and work simultaneously, while businesses came face to face with the reality that, without reliable child care, parents can’t work. That connection between child care and employment makes addressing parents’ barriers to high-quality child care a priority issue for business leaders.

As an employer of a number of staff with young children, I’ve also seen firsthand what it takes for parents to try to manage work and child care responsibilities when care is not consistently available. Business leaders now have a newfound appreciation for the important service child care providers offer — a service that has often gone unnoticed in the past.  

The challenges facing Maine’s child care workforce are documented in a new research report by Council for a Strong America, “Child care Providers: The Workforce Behind the Workforce in Maine.”

It is critical that child care offerings are high quality. The learning that takes place in child care is an important piece of the educational continuum for children — a fact highlighted in this new report.

There are three key elements of child care quality: a program’s physical environment, age-appropriate classroom materials that stimulate learning and, most importantly, that teacher-child interactions are consistent, supportive and stimulate learning.

The heart of any early childhood care and education program is the relationship between the teacher and the child. Highly qualified early educators engage in nurturing interactions with children, which supports children’s social and emotional development. These educators also provide developmentally appropriate instruction in key pre-literacy, pre-math and other academic skills. These skills form a foundation for successful learning in our K-12 education system. This process is more effective when early childhood educators are well-trained and supported through continuous professional development. Adequate compensation is key to attracting and retaining top talent.

In addition, child-to-teacher ratios must be low in order to provide the level of care and attention needed to facilitate children’s development most effectively. Because the child care “day” can be as long as 12 hours, programs must cover the entire day with adequate staff.

The main driver of child care costs is labor. Child care workers earn some of the lowest compensation in the nation. In 2019, the median wage for Maine early educators was  $12.89 per hour, which is about $26,800 annually. It has risen slightly in recent years and is now about $14.60. This is considerably lower than the $55,000 median salary, adjusted for the cost of living, for a Maine public school teacher.

The $12 million investment before legislators in the supplemental budget, proposed first by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, and now by Gov. Janet Mills, is designed to begin to address wages in a meaningful and permanent way. If approved, the budget will continue the $200 monthly wage supplement currently provided to child care workers with funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, which will expire in September. Over time this provision will also create wage stipends tied to worker’s knowledge, training, and experiences, and recognizes and rewards increased skills attainment.  

Also in the supplemental budget is a $100,000 proposal to support multiple pathways for skill development, training and educational opportunities for early educators. These pathways include expanding early childhood programs at Career and Technical Education Centers, which is a great entry point for young people and a model that we know works to set students up for success in their future post-secondary programs and in their workplaces. 

Maine’s 10-year economic development plans include the goal that we have world-class child care. These pending investments are the foundation of creating the network of quality child care that all Maine children and their working parents need and deserve. Creating world-class child care will unleash the potential for true economic growth across Maine.