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After losing pandemic relief funding, child care providers still struggling

Posted at 6:13 PM, Apr 16, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-17 12:06:49-04

BALTIMORE — It's a child care provider's dream - the ability to focus on teaching, and playing, without having to worry about keeping the lights on. But a child care provider's reality sounds more like this:

“We’re going to be getting this amount from the parents. We’re gonna have to raise this much through grants. We’re gonna have to be able to raise this much through fundraising. Have I talked to taking care of the children yet? No, I haven’t. All I’ve talked about is how to braid funds together in order to do the job," Hilary Roberts-King, executive director for Downtown Baltimore Child Care (DBCC).

Roberts-King took on the role of executive director right in the middle of the pandemic.

“It was desperate, it was desperate," she recalled. "Those were some pretty dark days.”

But she's worked in the child care industry for years. So she knew - before that darkness, it wasn't even that bright.

“Before the pandemic, all of childcare was living on razor-thin margins," she told WMAR-2 News in a recent interview at one of her DBCC locations. "So going forward, we cannot aspire to go back to what the situation was before COVID. Parents and providers were not making ends meet.”

Funding from the American Rescue Plan Act kept some providers hanging on during COVID. Not all were so lucky.

Roberts-King spent all the ARPA money on her employees, to make sure there were no layoffs. That federal funding dried up in the fall. Now places like DBCC are turning to partnerships, philanthropy, and raising tuition to make up for the loss.

“But for an industry that’s already stretched so thin just trying to care for the children, adding fundraising to that, it’s another job," Roberts-King said.

It’s a delicate balance - making tuition high enough to keep wages competitive, but low enough so parents can afford to stay.

“In order for this industry to support every other industry in Maryland, we cannot rely on it being funded through low wages, and parents who are at the very beginning of their earning potential. It’s an economic problem," Roberts-King said.

Good news came from the most recent state legislative session, which wrapped up last week.

As part of Maryland's landmark education reform law which passed in 2021, called the Blueprint for Maryland's future, the state is offering Pre-K expansion grants to providers. Until now, DBCC hasn’t been eligible for those grants because of a teacher certification requirement.

Evelyn Williams, who has worked at DBCC for 40 years, testified in front of both the House and the Senate, explaining why this requirement placed an "undue burden" on teachers and providers. She's a Masters-level Pre-K teacher, but she never pursued a Maryland State Department of Education teaching license. To get certified at this point, she'd have to leave her job and become a "student teacher."

Her testimony must have been compelling to lawmakers. A bill that alters that requirement, and would recognize Williams as a qualified Pre-K teacher, passed in both chambers.

"Anything that we can do to make the funding smooth so that we can focus on operations would be a step in the right direction," Roberts-King said. "Child care is infrastructure. It's like roads, it's like bridges, it's like electricity. No one can get to work without us."

Now that the bill has passed, more private providers like DBCC are qualified to apply for that state funding, and can then begin providing care for eligible children at no cost to families. Roberts-King says this is a big deal when it comes to caring for more kids, without having to worry if their parents can afford it.