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Nearly a quarter of Maine’s young children live in “child care deserts,” places where there are three children for every available child care slot. The percentage is even higher in rural areas.
Aroostook is among the four Maine counties classified as one of these deserts. At a recent town hall meeting in Caribou, child care providers said that without significant changes, Aroostook County could lose more providers, which could worsen workforce shortages by making it more difficult for parents to work or return to the workforce. The city has lost half of its early child care providers since 2014.
Even though there has been a significant increase in state financial support for child care, providers at the Sept. 15 meeting said that more state money was needed.
Increasingly, the math of child care doesn’t add up.
As we’ve written before, Maine’s child care market is broken. Parents, too often, can’t find or afford care for their young children. At the same time, those who operate child care centers struggle to retain staff, in part because they can’t afford to pay higher wages without charging parents more, which would put child care out of reach of more parents.
Because of these pressures and others, day care facilities are closing, in Maine and across the country. More than 170 day care operators in the state have closed since the pandemic began, the Portland Press Herald reported last year. This has left many parents – most often mothers – struggling to continue working without adequate child care.
We often don’t point to the government to solve market problems, but in the absence of other solutions, more government intervention may be needed to rebalance Maine’s child care market. This should be a focus for state lawmakers when they reconvene next year. Such work can be informed by the new assistant director for child care who will soon join the state’s Office of Child and Family Services.
Already, Maine has devoted more than $100 million to child care in the past year. Much of the funding has come from the federal government through the American Rescue Plan Act, money that helps states offset disruptions and other problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The child care money aims to help providers meet COVID protocols and to boost their workforces. The money can be used for payroll.
A new round of money will go to child care providers this month along with state funding for staffing that was approved by lawmakers this year. Up to $200 in monthly stipends will be available for each staff member who provides direct care.
The state is also using federal rescue funds for infrastructure grants to encourage new and expanded child care facilities and for training for child care workers.
Jordyn Rossignol, owner of Miss Jordyn’s Child Care and Preschool in Caribou and a candidate for the state Legislature, said at the town hall that she has lost more than 30 teachers since the start of the pandemic. She credited the ARPA funds for allowing her to increase wages for her staff. However, those funds, now supplemented by additional state funding, are only a short-term help.
“Those funds are the only reason I’ve been able to not raise tuition,” she said. “We’re not funded the way schools are, so we rely on tuition from parents.”
For families, Maine has a subsidy program, which began in the 1990s, that can cover up to 75 percent of child care costs for families that qualify. Providers at the Caribou forum, however, said that the rates the state pays to child care providers are too low to cover their costs.
Rossignol, for instance, said she receives a market-rate reimbursement of $148 weekly per full-time pre-K child covered by the subsidy, but it costs her $186 a week per child to operate those classrooms, including teacher wages and supplies. State law prevents her from charging parents who are part of the subsidy program the difference.
Federal COVID relief money has helped many child care providers stay open in recent years. But, the underlying pressures — a need to raise staff salaries, which is limited by how much parents are able to pay for care — will remain well into the future.
Finding a way to bridge that gap should be an urgent priority for the next Legislature.