“Mainers should be wary of policies that exert pressure to keep [child care] costs unreasonably low,” Tara Williams wrote in a recently published OpEd. This reeks of special interests. Mainers, who have trouble accessing and affording child care services within their communities, should resist policies that make child care less expensive, according to Williams.
This is irrational.
Child care is inaccessible and unaffordable in Maine primarily because we are regulating an integral wing of the industry — family child care providers — out of the market. What Williams and other early childhood education advocates don’t want to talk about is how fast providers across the state, particularly family providers, are disappearing.
Between 2008 and 2018, Maine lost 600 licensed child care providers, with the majority of closures coming in family child care. Family child care is typically the most accessible and affordable option for Maine families; everyone knows a local mom down the street who has been watching the neighborhood kids for decades.
Since 2008, every county in Maine has lost one-fifth of its licensed family providers. All but three counties have lost more than one-half of their licensed nursery schools. Marginal growth in the number of licensed child care facilities has partially offset this loss, but the licensed capacity at these facilities does not accurately reflect current occupancy. The loss of these providers makes care far less accessible, as the demand for licensed care (regardless of provider type) grows with each closure, causing costs to balloon across the industry.
Williams says she wants Maine parents to have “many wonderful choices” for their children, but the some of the regulations she promotes do just the opposite; they restrict choice and force families into informal child care arrangements, or into expensive child care facilities or “early learning centers.” The only remaining alternative is unlicensed and potentially illegal care, where there is no government oversight.
Some activists in Maine truly want child care to be a de facto wing of the Department of Education. They want curriculum in place for infants (a mindboggling concept) and parent-teacher conferences for toddlers. These are measures they claim would improve “quality,” a subjective term advocates never care to define for the public.
There are two measures of quality as it relates to child care: structural quality and process quality. Structural quality encompasses easily observable features of a care environment, such as child-staff ratios and education requirements for staff. Process quality refers to educational programming and the quality of interactions between children and providers.
Rarely do state regulators consider process quality improvements, which would have a greater impact on the quality of care received. Instead, regulators focus on strict structural quality reforms, which do not ensure or guarantee “quality” in a care environment, but do significantly raise the cost of services.
The Mercatus Center estimates that requiring providers to have at least a high school education correlates to an increase in cost between 25 percent and 46 percent, or $2,730 to $4,350 annually. This is a regulation that industry experts agree is most important for quality, but it does enhance the cost of services.
I raise this point not to propose eliminating the rule, but to show that even regulations considered necessary for quality raise the cost of child care. Regulators must understand this, and limit rules to those that measurably and significantly increase the health, safety and quality of services.
Fourteen states permit staff to watch more infants than Maine’s ratios allow. Twenty-eight states allow staff members to supervise more toddlers and school-age children than Maine. Twenty-five states have less restrictive ratios for preschool-aged children. Children in these states are not at greater risk of death or serious injury because of these rules, and the care they receive is still quality. Rather than regulating providers out of the market, these states have established regulatory environments that give providers flexibility to keep their doors open.
We cannot regulate “quality” into the industry. It is a subjective term that advocates use to promote unnecessary regulation and to scare parents into believing their children will be abused or neglected without the rules they endorse. Their solution to the crisis is more taxation and more subsidy programs, rather than marginally loosening restrictions that would instantly make child care more affordable and accessible without compromising health, safety or quality.
Maine does not need government programs to make child care affordable and accessible. Maine needs to impose rules that give providers — trained, licensed professionals — the flexibility to meet the needs of their communities.
Jacob Posik is a policy analyst at The Maine Heritage Policy Center.
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