We profess to care about the well-being of children — the most helpless and vulnerable, the future of our community, the hope of our nation, etc. We profess to care about small businesses. We profess to care a whole lot about helping low-income families become self-sufficient.
But what do we do when it comes to investing in a program that’s key to all three? We short-change it. I’m talking, of course, about subsidized child care.
Talking about it now because Mayor Gray’s budget proposes $2.2 million less in local spending on child care subsidies.
The Office of the State Superintendent for Education says the “adjustment” reflects the current expenditure rate. It’s been decreasing in recent years “in part because of the increase in quality of Pre-Kindergarten 3 and 4 year old slots in District Public Schools and Community-Based Organizations.”
This, I take it, is a roundabout way of saying that more parents are choosing to send their kids to the pre-K programs in our public schools. And a way of not saying that the current expenditure rate still leaves thousands of parents without affordable child care.
OSSE is thus offering basically the same justification as it did last year, when former Mayor Fenty proposed a larger child care subsidy cut.
And the objections, I think, are basically the same — though what I’ve learned since allows me to flesh them out somewhat.
First, however great they are, the preschool and pre-K programs offered by the District’s public and charter schools don’t admit children under the age of three.
That leaves lots of parents with infants and toddlers no alternative but community-based child care centers and in-home providers — assuming, of course, that they want or need to go on working or fulfilling other obligations, e.g., complying with the work requirements of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
Same is true for some parents with three and four year olds. DC Action for Children’s blog reports that DCPS has some 1,400 children on waiting lists for pre-K slots.
Since I last wrote about child care, OSSE released the results of a more current survey of local providers, including comparisons between market rates and the rates at which OSSE reimburses those with subsidy contracts.*
Its waiting list figures are somewhat lower than OSSE’s less current ward-by-ward reports. But the details it adds are more important than the differences.
Notably, 72.8% of children on provider waiting lists last year were under four. And there were barely more of these children enrolled than wait-listed — 7,568, as compared to 7,381.
The survey report authors say, as they did in 2008, that “there appears to be a mismatch between slots needed and/or desired and current supply.” Mild understatement here.
And again, part of the explanation seems to be the gap between child care market rates and the reimbursements OSSE provides.
For contract centers, which account for the vast majority of subsidized slots, the annualized reimbursement rate for infants was nearly $4,000 less than the market rate. Point spreads for children ages one through three were all over $3,000 — nearly $3,770 for one year olds.
Not surprising then that large majorities of contract centers reported difficulty making ends meet — as, for the most part, did contract family home providers. Nor surprising that both recommended increasing reimbursement rates more often to keep up with rising operating costs.
In short, there’s no doubt that OSSE has been spending less. But that’s no reason to make another cut in child care subsidy funding.
* I’ve been told that the rates shown in the report don’t include the relatively small co-pays that contract providers may charge all but the poorest parents with vouchers. So the total per child amounts the providers receive are generally somewhat higher than shown.