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Congress is sending families less help for childcare costs. So states intervene

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Across the country, the story is much the same for families: Child care is unaffordable for many, hard to find for those who can afford it, and financially precarious for day care centers and their employees.

The Biden administration and Congress sought to alleviate some of these problems as the pandemic crippled the child care industry. But as the record $52.5 billion in aid comes to an end, many states have stepped in with their own solutions.

States have expanded free early childhood education and helped more families afford child care, making it cheap or even free for many. Recognizing that a federal solution is unlikely to happen anytime soon, policymakers have come up with new ways to pay for their plans, creating permanent funding sources that will make new programs sustainable.

For example, New Mexico has tapped into its oil revenues, Washington state has introduced a new tax on investment profits and Kentucky is encouraging parents to work in childcare.

And while the biggest investments in child care are coming from Democrats, Republican lawmakers across the country are embracing plans to support child care — citing its importance to the economy.

FUNDING FROM NEW MEXICO MAKES CAREER POSSIBLE

After giving birth, Marisshia Sigala put her plans to start her real estate career on hold. She and her husband – a personal trainer – lived on one salary for about two years and realized that childcare costs would be out of reach even if they both worked.

Then in 2022, New Mexico made child care free for nearly all of the state’s families, amending its constitution to fund early childhood initiatives with money from leasing state land to oil and gas companies.

The change is estimated to raise $150 million a year for the education of children like Mateo. Sigala and her husband qualify because they earn less than 400% of the federal poverty level, currently about $120,000 a year for a family of four. Mateo is one of more than 21,000 children who now benefit from the subsidies.

Now Sigala, 32, is back at work while Mateo attends the Koala Children’s Academy, which specializes in bilingual education.

“As an entrepreneur it is a lot more challenging and we have to rely on ourselves. We don’t get a paycheck every week,” Sigala said. “It’s been a blessing for us.”

Expanding free child care for families “makes a difference for families in such a profound way,” said Elizabeth Groginsky, secretary of New Mexico’s early childhood education. And, she said, it also helps those who care for and raise young children.

Groginsky and other state leaders hope the massive investments will help alleviate the effects of poverty.

“It’s just an incredible opportunity that we have here,” she said.

PRE-SCHOOL FOR FAMILIES IN WASHINGTON

Washington state aims to provide free preschool to all low-income families and child care vouchers to all low- and middle-income families by the end of the decade, along with high-quality care for infants and toddlers with developmental disabilities.

The state is expanding its programs with the help of a new 7% tax on profits from residents’ financial investments — a levy intended to fall on wealthier people.

When Zaneta Billyzone-Jatta’s daughter Zakiah was born prematurely in 2021, her mother hired a nanny to watch the baby three days a week. A clinical manager at a hospital network, Billyzone-Jatta, 42, had to work while keeping an eye on her daughter for the other two days. She felt like she couldn’t give her toddler enough attention, let alone address the girl’s developmental issues the way a professional could.

Through a state program for low-income families and struggling children like Zakiah, she now sends her daughter for free to a child care center near her home in the Seattle area. There, three teachers supervise seven children in Zakiah’s class and meticulously document her progress. Occupational therapists and speech therapists see Zakiah at school and work closely with the teachers.

Billyzone-Jatta said Zakiah has made tremendous progress at the school. She talks extensively about her days and mentions classmates by name. She has learned to interact with other students, drink from an open cup and share.

“Being a working mother and knowing that you are bringing your child to an environment where they are loved and cared for gives you so much peace,” she said.

But the program that helps babies and toddlers like Zakiah is still small, serving fewer than 200 children statewide. And in November, Washington voters will have a chance to weigh in on the tax in a referendum that could lead to its repeal, jeopardizing the progress the state has made, child care advocates say.

“It would be catastrophic,” said Jon Gould of Akin, the nonprofit that operates Zakiah’s state-supported child care center.

IN KENTUCKY, CHILDREN OF CHILD CARE WORKERS ARE FREE

Rylee Monn, 24, worked at Baptist Health Child Development Center in Lexington when she had her second child, and doubled what she paid for her children to attend the same center.

She considered quitting and taking a night shift job so she could care for her children during the day.

“My entire paycheck went to childcare,” Monn said.

Then, in 2023, Kentucky started a program to cover or reduce child care costs for parents who work in child care. The program was designed to tackle two challenges simultaneously. Policymakers hoped this would attract more workers to childcare, addressing a shortage. And they wanted to provide more low-cost child care for all families.

According to EdSurge, a publication focused on education, more than a dozen states are now considering or have already adopted policies modeled after Kentucky’s.

The program has helped the state’s child care industry recruit workers who might otherwise work in services.

Delaney Griffin, 30, worked at a pizza restaurant last year and was thinking about her next step with her young family. Her childcare costs ate up nearly $100 of her biweekly check.

After learning about the child care benefit, she started working at Baptist Health Child Development Center in December. She now pays about $5 a week. Her oldest child is in a preschool program.

“The free childcare portion was the biggest reason I actually got into childcare,” Griffin said.

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This series on how the child care crisis is impacting working parents – with a focus on solutions – is produced by the Education Reporting Collaborative, a coalition of eight newsrooms including AL.com, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor and The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, Idaho Education News, The Post & Courier and The Seattle Times.

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