Over the last three years, hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief has helped to stabilize Connecticut’s early childhood education sector and provide financial assistance to an expanded number of low- and moderate-income families in need of child care. 

By this fall, that money will no longer be available. 

Child care providers say the governor’s and lawmakers’ efforts this year to make up for the lost funding in the state budget will fall far short — a blow to this critical, often overlooked, sector that enables parents of young children to work. Roughly one in four working households in Connecticut have children under the age of 6.

“It’s going to really be a problem for many, many programs, especially for our kind of industry,” said Maureen Fontaine, who runs a licensed child care business out of her home in Fairfield.

Nearly a third of the state’s child care providers are already operating at a loss and struggling to retain staff while parents abide on waiting lists, according to a recent survey by the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance. With federal funding going away, many of those businesses could be forced to close, further reducing statewide child care capacity, advocates say.

Maureen Fontaine runs a licensed child care business out of her home in Fairfield. Photo courtesy of All Our Kin.

Lawmakers sought to address the strain confronting the sector by adding $67.5 million over the next two years to the budget for Care 4 Kids — a state program that subsidizes child care for lower-income families. 

That allows for an 11% annual increase in the per-student rate Connecticut pays licensed child care centers and home-based care providers (the rate for unlicensed providers will go up 6% a year). And it amounts to a much-needed, and long-awaited, revenue boost for providers who serve lower-income families. 

But those higher rates come with a caveat: Care 4 Kids will have to reduce the number of children it serves by several thousand. As of April of this year, there were more than 22,000 children enrolled in the program; That will decline to 19,500 by the end of next year, according to the state Office of Early Childhood. 

OEC spokeswoman Maggie Adair said before the pandemic, only roughly 15,000 children were enrolled in Care 4 Kids. Emergency federal funding and additional state dollars have allowed the program to expand. Connecticut also extended eligibility beyond lower-income working parents to those pursuing higher education, occupational training, apprenticeships, certification programs and other adult education. 

Georgia Goldburn, director of child development center Hope for New Haven, said with fewer slots available in the coming years, lower-income families with working parents may have to wait longer to get approved for the subsidized program.

It’s all bad news wrapped up in the perception of good news. We’re still in a crisis.

Georgia Goldburn, Hope for New Haven

“That pretty much ensures that the most vulnerable families — who are majority our Black and brown children — are going to be the ones sitting on the Care 4 Kids waiting list, while families with means who can pay out of pocket are going to be the ones who will take those slots,” she said.

As inflation soared over the last two years, child care providers across the board — whether they have students in Care 4 Kids or not — struggled to cover their costs. Without the ability to raise staff wages, many lost teachers and had to reduce capacity

The approved 2024-25 budget includes an additional $15 million in the second year to increase funding for other subsidized early care programs. But Merrill Gay, executive director of the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance, said it comes a year late and millions of dollars short. 

“It’s not going to replace the roughly $100 million a year that’s been pumped into the system for the past couple of years,” Gay said.

“It’s all bad news wrapped up in the perception of good news,” Goldburn said. “We’re still in a crisis.”

Kindergarten starting age set to change

The challenges for families and providers will be compounded next year when the child care sector expects a spike in enrollment. 

Lawmakers approved a measure this session that raises the starting age for kindergarten. Beginning in 2024, children will need to have turned 5 years old as of September 1 the year they begin kindergarten. The previous cutoff was January 1. That means a third of all kids born in 2019 will have to wait a year longer to enter primary school. 

Many early childhood leaders say they recognize the developmental reasons children aren’t usually ready for kindergarten at age 4. Connecticut has one of the youngest kindergarten starting ages among the 50 states. 

Still, the policy change creates challenges for the sector. 

“There are concerns about the transition period,” said Joanne Kelleher, director of the Early Childhood Collaborative of Southington. “A whole bunch of kids, a third of the kids, are not going to be able to move up to kindergarten as scheduled.”

Kelleher noted that a 2021 “baby boom” in Connecticut makes the timing particularly difficult for parents, who are already struggling to find openings for their infants. “It’s the perfect storm of not enough staff, not enough spots, and now more babies,” she said.

Andrene Cross-Rozario and Eva Goldburn, educators at Hope Child Development Center, play with their students. Leaders at centers like this one are concerned they won’t be able to pay the staff they need when federal emergency COVID funding runs out this year. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

Gay said many child care providers are worried about offering the right curriculum for students remaining in pre-K for another year. Others aren’t sure their capacity can handle the additional strain. 

“Wealthy kids whose parents can afford to pay will generally get what they need,” he said, and some lower-income families could luck into a third year of subsidized pre-K. But the youngest children, who in the past would have started pre-K at 2 years and 9 months old, will have difficulty finding an open spot unless they are currently enrolled in infant-toddler care with the same provider, he said.

OEC voiced opposition the policy change as it moved through the legislature, but Adair said in an email that the office will work with the state education department and early childhood educators to “help ease what is a difficult transition.” 

Adair added: “Without universal preschool in CT, we know that families who cannot afford preschool may be out of formal education for a whole other year if their child has a fall birthday. And families will incur thousands of dollars in additional costs for child care.”

Bright spots

OEC Commissioner Beth Bye has acknowledged “huge challenges” in the child care field. But she said earlier this year that higher Care 4 Kids rates would make a real difference, especially for family child care providers. 

And it comes on top of another rate increase lawmakers approved last year for state-funded infant-toddler programs. Connecticut added 1,300 infant-toddler slots and raised rates to $13,500 per student. 

Bye has said that the child care sector was in crisis before the pandemic. The emergency federal funding slowed a steep downward trend in the state’s capacity, and the state’s rate increases last year and this year will replace some of the funding that’s going away, she said.

By the end of this year, a Blue Ribbon Panel convened by Gov. Ned Lamont will deliver a five-year strategic plan for the state’s child care system, with recommendations across four broad areas: equity and access; workforce and quality; early childhood systems; and funding and costs.

Lifei Duan, an educator at Hope Child Development Center, teaches her students the alphabet. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

The legislature approved a handful of other policy changes and funding streams this year aimed at bolstering child care workforce training, assisting collaborative community groups that support families, and altering zoning regulations so in-home providers can serve more students. 

All Our Kin, a group representing home-based child care providers, advocated for many years for the zoning change. Chief executive Jessica Sager said her group was “incredibly excited” the legislature finally approved it. 

Family child care homes, which were exempt from zoning regulations as long as they kept enrollment at six students or fewer, can now expand to up to 12 students without needing to obtain zoning approvals. Sager said Connecticut has more than 1,800 family child care homes.

“The passage of this bill removes really artificial barriers to expanding the supply of child care,”  Sager said. “We knew [family child care businesses] had a huge waiting list, especially for infants and toddlers, that families were really desperate for this care and that this was something that the whole state needed to turn our economy around.”

Still, Sager said she thinks the state is vastly underfunding child care. 

“It’s great to expand supply, but we know how expensive child care is. We know that parents in Connecticut are already struggling to afford care,” she said. “Increasing supply only gets you so far if families don’t have the money to pay.”

Erica covers economic development for CT Mirror. Before moving to Connecticut to join the staff she worked in Los Angeles for public radio’s Marketplace and, before that, for the Wall Street Journal's L.A. bureau. She grew up in Minneapolis, MN, graduated from Haverford College and earned a master’s in journalism from the University of Southern California.