Aroostook County, along with the rest of the state, is at grave risk of losing much of its high quality, affordable child care. This is due to deep cuts in state child care subsidies combined with the sequestration of federal funding for Head Start and Early Head Start child development programs. Unless funding for these programs is increased, child care facilities run by Aroostook County Action Program and other community action programs throughout the state face a doubtful future.
Closure of child care classrooms in the County would force parents of more than 50 young children to find alternative (and lower quality) arrangements for their children’s care and require a number of employees to be laid off. These child care centers were facing imminent closure — by May 1. Thankfully, the board of directors of ACAP (of which I am a member), authorized the expenditure of its own reserve funds as a non-profit organization to replace those state and federal funds lost to budget cuts. This emergency measure, which will exhaust up to one-fifth of ACAP’s entire reserve fund, will postpone closures for a few months, in hopes that more funding will be forthcoming.
The dedicated teachers at centers run by ACAP are highly trained and do much more than simply watch kids. They provide educational programs and developmental assessments of each child, and help with any other needs that might arise, such as special education or dental care. This excellent care, available to all parents at a market rate, but at a reduced price for lower-income parents, provides a profound, long-lasting benefit to these kids.
Research has abundantly demonstrated that quality early childhood education is about the most effective way there is to give disadvantaged children a boost educationally and economically. The parents of these children, in the meantime, are able to work or further their education as a way of improving their family’s circumstances. Without access to quality child care, this cycle spins in reverse — kids fall behind, parents drop out of the workforce, families are destabilized and economic growth suffers.
Tragically, state and federal budget cuts have combined to push ACAP services over a “tipping point” at which providing child care to all of the children attending its child and family service centers is no longer financially viable. In a perverse irony, these centers are victims of their own efficiency. By pooling state and federal dollars into centers that administer multiple programs under a single roof, ACAP has been able to realize substantial efficiencies.
Moreover, funding child care slots at these centers is a bargain for state government because the federal government has paid for the majority of the overhead costs for their operation, leaving the state government to pick up the tab for little more than the salaries of the teachers and staff.
But efficiency means no room for more cuts. Staffing has already been reduced to the minimum allowed by law. Heating, transportation, insurance and other costs are all essentially fixed. Without these, the centers cannot open their doors. Boxed in by these realities, publicly supported child care facilities throughout the state are having to close.
What needs to happen? Two pending bills in the Legislature offer a ray of hope. LD 517, “An Act to Restore Funding to Head Start,” and LD 1383, “An Act to Improve the Delivery of Early Care and Education Services,” would restore what was cut in the state budget for early childhood programs. This in turn would make the state eligible for $3 from the federal government for child care subsidies for every $2 appropriated, an astonishingly good bargain for the state.
If no help is forthcoming, brightly colored drawings will come down, lights will be switched off and classroom doors will be locked, leaving parents to crouch down and explain to their kids why their days of learning and developing with their favorite teachers are at an end. I urge the good people of Aroostook County and all of Maine to rally around their community action programs’ child care centers, and convey that support to their elected representatives.
Brent S. Andersen is an adjunct assistant professor of political science at the University of Maine at Presque Isle.