Volunteer Patsy Ciampi and teacher Matthew Little-Farmer at Catherine Morrill Day Nursery in Portland in May. (Maine Public photo by Rebecca Conley)
Despite the state’s child care challenges, experts and advocates see examples of possible solutions in Maine and around the country.
The issue is also emerging as a theme among Democratic candidates in the 2020 presidential election.
Meanwhile, advocates say the first step is to start thinking about early child care as an investment.
By Maine Public staff June 24, 2019
The first three years of life are considered critical for a child’s brain development and future success, says Rita Furlow of the Maine Children’s Alliance. But Furlow says the state spends much more money on K-12 and its state university and community college systems.
There's some federal money spent on child care in Maine, but Furlow says most of the financial burden falls to parents.
Economists say public investment in early child care makes good sense. Art Rolnick, who researches the economics of child care at the University of Minnesota, says research shows it's an extremely wise investment.
In an analysis of data from the 1960s looking at low-income, at-risk families who were provided with high-quality preschool and parent mentoring, Rolnick and Fed economist Rob Grunewald set out to calculate the economic value of child care. The study followed 123 low-income families and provided high-quality preschool and parent mentoring to half of them. It then tracked educational achievement, involvement in crime and taxes generated on earnings.
Rolnick says that based on an annual child care cost of $10,000, the research calculated a return on investment of 18 percent, adjusted for inflation. He says a 7 percent return would have been good, but these results were stunning.
"I challenge policymakers all over the country," he says, "to show me a better investment."
In fact, Rolnick says, since the positive economic impact of early childhood programs is so strong, they should be funded through state economic development funds.
Rolnick and Grunewald's study was the beginning of research that ultimately led to something called the Minnesota Model. It's a holistic child care system that starts even before a child is born, pairing mentors with soon-to-be parents. Parents also receive scholarships so they can select a high-quality child care program of their choice, from home-based or larger centers to Head Start.
Just over the border of western Maine, the province of Quebec created a government-subsidized universal child care system for preschool children 20 years ago.
"So this model is not, 'Give us your child, we'll take care of them,'" Rolnick says. "This is a model of parent empowerment. And the parent can choose. And let that parent realize they are critical for that child's success."
Stanford economist Myra Strober believes that rather than just focusing on disadvantaged families, states should aim to create a quality, universal system for all.
"But it should be subsidized on a sliding scale. There's no reason why people who can afford child care should be subsidized. Only people who can't afford it," she says.
Strober suggests that the subsidies should be funded through income tax and that community colleges be subsidized to help train child care teachers. Paid parental leave, she says, could help alleviate the high demand for infant care.
"If everybody knew that if they have a child they could have paid leave for the first few months of the child's life, I think that would go a long way toward solving this problem," she says.
Promise Early Education Center, Androscoggin County's Head Start program, serves more than 300 children at eight locations each year. More than 90 percent fall below the federal poverty guidelines. For a family of four that's about $20,000 a year.
For those who do get in, child care — including meals, diapers and formula — is free. Still, only about 30 percent of qualifying children around the country can access a Head Start program. For Early Head Start, which serves children under 3 years old, the number is closer to 15 percent.
The Androscoggin County Head Start program also has a waitlist of about 100 families.
Last year, Maine received more than $34 million in federal funding for Head Start-related services. But the money never seems to go far enough. Betsy Norcross Plourde, the program’s director, says the cost per child is about $17,000 a year.
"Keep in mind all the things that we provide. It's care. It's high-quality educational curriculum, an evidence-based curriculum. It's health services that support the family and the child. It's nutrition services. We meet all a child's needs," she says.
And Plourde says it's getting more complex as children and families are coming into the program having experienced trauma.
Monica Redlevske, an education and child development director at Promise, says the children who come in "have witnessed domestic violence, some significant mental health issues or substance use and abuse or who are new to our area and have experienced things in other countries or other places that have been really, really traumatic."
These adverse childhood experiences, she says, require staff to be trained to respond appropriately. Teachers at Promise are required to have a certification or a college degree in early childhood education, and Plourde says she does her best to pay them a competitive wage.
Someone with a degree and a certification, for example, earns a salary in the low $40,000 range. That's still well below the average Maine kindergarten teacher salary of $52,000.
In 2016, a Rutgers University study found that Head Start classrooms generally performed better for social and emotional development than they do for instruction. But Maine scored above the national average. Plourde says at Promise, more than 90 percent of the children enter school developmentally on target.
Sandra Ridley of Lewiston says she's seen a big change in her five-year-old daughter who had been having behavioral issues.
And Ridley's own circumstances have improved since her daughter got into Head Start.
"I started to look for a job. I got a job. I was there for about a year. Now I'm a supervisor," she says.
A former opiate addict who was homeless two years ago, Ridley now works two jobs and says she's able to make ends meet. But she says she'd never have been able to without the benefit of free child care and other support the program offers.
Meanwhile, another holistic program in Maine is being funded by business and community groups as well as federal money.
Educare Central Maine in Waterville is part of a national network and offers care to more than 200 local children, many low-income, using data, training, small student-to-teacher ratios and frequent engagement with families. So far, researchers say the model has shown promise and has even helped narrow achievement gaps for students from low-income families.
Educare is working with the school district in Skowhegan to launch a new Early Head Start program for up to 16 young children. It's also bringing its model to the small, family-based child care providers scattered around the area.
That's a big adjustment for those providers. Chrissie Davis, who runs Bouncing Bubbles Child Care out of her home in Skowhegan, had to adopt a new curriculum and comply with certain federal Early Head Start standards. But she said it has been well worth it, and she has also been able to connect families with crucial resources like dental care.
In Somerset County, the program taught mother Kaitlin Taylor how to budget for a car and offered her advice on how to work with her son when he acts out. Without the program, Taylor says, "we wouldn't have had the same resources, we wouldn't have been as well set-up financially as we are — I think I would have been a little lost."
Advocates are looking to bring a bill in the next legislative session that would open the door for similar pilot projects in other parts of Maine.
Paying the tab
Currently, the burden for child care is mostly borne by parents, with some aid to parents — particularly those with lower incomes — from the federal government in the form of programs like Head Start, tax credits, TANF and direct subsidies. Maine also offers a child care income tax credit. But advocates say it’s not enough.
According to one advocate, over the past decade, a lack of infrastructure and poor funding decisions have negatively affected Maine’s child care sector.
Another problem with many child care programs is that even for families who meet the income guidelines, it's not always clear to them what's available and whether they qualify. According to the National Women's Law Center, only 1 in 6 families who meet the income guidelines are getting assistance.
Catherine White with the center says that's also the case in Maine, where 1 in 10 people also live in poverty.
In Maine, the Mills administration is looking at ways to improve early childhood programming, and as part of that effort has relaunched the Children's Cabinet. Hannah Pingree, of the soon-to-be-opened Office of Policy Innovation and the Future, says the state has a "vision" for improving child care, but the challenge is "how to make it work in rural, poor state."
Maine's congressional delegation is active in addressing this issue, with Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins both supporting large increases in federal funding for child care programs like Head Start and preschool development grants. They both also serve on their respective legislative bodies' appropriations committees.
Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King has reintroduced bipartisan legislation that would make child care tax credits more generous, giving working families greater spending power.
“No parent should have to choose between ensuring their child receives high-quality care and keeping their job or putting food on the table," he said in announcing the bill. “But too often today, the soaring costs of child care can force families to make these difficult decisions."
In Maine, where a serious labor shortage is confronting the oldest state in the nation, business owners are also anxious to attract and keep young workers on the job. Frederick Haer of FHC, a medical technology firm in Bowdoin, was so worried about it he took matters in his own hands and started on-site child care for his team
Maine Public reporters Robbie Feinberg, Mal Leary, Susan Sharon and Patty Wight contributed to this story. The broadcast version of Feinberg’s piece first aired in All Things Considered Thursday, June 27. The broadcast version of Leary’s piece first aired in All Things Considered Wednesday, June 26. The broadcast version of Sharon’s piece first aired in All Things Considered Thursday, June 27. The broadcast version of Wight’s piece first aired in All Things Considered Friday, June 28.