Child care funding: A choice between the struggling and destitute

One way of looking at the business of state government – especially human services – is through numbers.

And on Tuesday morning, in a room at the state Capitol complex, a single small number seemed to tell its own story about the fiscal bind legislators are likely to find themselves in over and over again this session.

A preschool classroom in West Hartford.

CTMirror.org file photo

A preschool classroom in West Hartford.

The number was 300, and it referred to the number of additional homeless children Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is proposing receive free child care at state expense. To pay for it, hundreds of children from other low-income families, but ones with homes, are expected to no longer receive child care subsidies.

“There will be tradeoffs,” Myra Jones-Taylor, the Office of Early Childhood commissioner, warned the legislature’s Committee on Children. “I wish we could say we could increase the rolls.”

At issue is a bill proposed by the Democratic governor that would put children from homeless families at the front of the line for free child care through the Care 4 Kids program.

But because the governor has not proposed providing the $1.5 million needed to accommodate the added homeless children expected to sign up, families that make over a certain threshold would not get any subsidy when more people apply than the state budget provides for.

Subsidies are provided on a sliding scale depending on income. The cap for a single mom would be $36,000 a year, 50 percent of the state’s median income.

The advocacy community is torn.

“We should not choose the desperate versus the poor,” Steven Hernández, the director of public policy and research with the Connecticut Commission on Children, testified.

“The families most in need of our assistance are the families that are homeless,” testified Lisa Tepper Bates, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness.

This dilemma presents itself because the governor has proposed closing a looming $570-million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year almost entirely through budget cuts and has ruled out tax increases.

That’s leaving legislators with decisions they are reluctant to make.

“It feels as though we are being asked to pick winners and losers,” said Sen. Danté Bartolomeo, D-Meriden, the co-chair of the Committee on Children. “We have this hard decision to make.”

The child care proposal was spurred by the administration’s plan to end family homelessness by 2022.

“For the best outcomes for children in a family, it is essential to not only quickly meet the broad range of needs facing a homeless family while they are in crisis, but also to invest in strategies to prevent homelessness,” the plan for families with young children reads.

Care 4 Kids funding can be used for both preschool programs and home-based child care. During his first term Malloy spearheaded several initiatives to move the state toward universal access to preschool.

“Let’s commit Connecticut to achieving universal pre-kindergarten,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy told legislators during his State of the State speech in 2014.

The legislature agreed and funded the first year of the governor’s plan to add 1,020 preschool seats for this year. The plan was to eventually add another 3,000 seats over the next four years.

But then deficits began to accumulate, and that plan stalled.

The state still has a long way to go before it reaches universal preschool for the state’s 3- and 4-year olds. State officials reported last year that 10,109 children from low-income families — nearly one-third of poor students — cannot afford to enroll in a high-quality preschool program. To provide universal access to preschool, districts would have to add 814 preschool classrooms.

Children in foster care were particularly affected. More than half of preschool-aged children in foster homes – 220 children – were not enrolled in preschool at the start of the 2013-14 school year, according to the Department of Children and Families.

The state is in the middle of a multi-year federal grant that helps the state pay for preschool enrollment of 428 homeless children and other youths.

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