People talk in a meeting room.
Dr. William (Billy) Johnson shares feedback on the Blue Ribbon Panel's draft plan. Erica E. Phillips / CT Mirror

The COVID pandemic exposed the fragility of Connecticut’s child care sector — as well as its vital role in the economy. Now, three years on, a high-profile effort to bolster the state’s early childhood education system is nearing its final stages.

State leaders have placed great expectations on the work of a “Blue Ribbon Panel,” convened by Gov. Ned Lamont in March, which was tasked with developing a five-year strategic plan for the system by the end of this year.

A draft of that plan, released earlier this month, contains an ambitious set of recommendations — and a significant price tag. Still, some advocates say the strategy isn’t bold enough.

The plan includes investments in the workforce, by boosting state funding for providers and offering health benefits and education opportunities for educators. It seeks to make child care more affordable by expanding families’ eligibility for state subsidies, and it seeks to augment supply and access across various segments of the system. Broadly, the plan seeks to reduce complexity, maximize existing resources and identify additional sources of funding.

“This kind of prioritization for child care in Connecticut has not happened in my career, in 40 years, with this level of engagement and participation,” Beth Bye, commissioner of the Office of Early Childhood, told members of the panel at a gathering to review the draft last week. “It speaks to where child care is right now in the conversation about what matters in Connecticut and how Connecticut can move forward.”

Bye said preliminary estimates of what it would cost to meet all the goals laid out in the panel’s draft plan — in the hundreds of millions of dollars — were “stunning.” So the commissioner asked members to discuss in groups which components of the plan they’d prioritize in final recommendations to the governor and the legislature, which are due by the end of this year.

The assignment didn’t sit right with some members of the panel and observers at the meeting. 

“It’s actually not a good idea to start from a place of scarcity,” said panel member William Johnson, director of educational strategy at the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund. “We should be starting with recommendations that are bold and wide and diverse and meet the needs of all of our citizens in the state.”

Johnson said the panel’s convening presented an opportunity to define a “North Star” for early childhood education in Connecticut. “But if we start from where we’re starting, I just think we don’t get nearly as close to where we need to go.” He said it was especially critical for the panel — made up largely of advocates, providers and businesses — to listen to the needs of parents around the state.

Over the summer, the CT Early Childhood Funder Collaborative gathered input from nearly 900 families in a series of interviews conducted by community organizations around the state. The families talked about their desire for loving environments, caring teachers, quality nutrition, affordability and access. But they also spoke of their needs for flexibility, convenience and programs that address their unique situations.

Georgia Goldburn, director of child development center Hope for New Haven, attended the panel’s meeting last week, and she said she didn’t hear anything in the plan that would address the circumstances of many of the state’s most vulnerable parents — who often need that flexibility. 

Goldburn highlighted two distressing individual stories of parents being forced to make painful choices because they didn’t have the support they needed. In one case, a mother had qualified for state-subsidized care for her baby through the Care4Kids program, but she was placed on a waiting list. Care4Kids only offers the subsidy to parents who are working or looking for work, and in this case the mother had a job — but she couldn’t get care. Her only option was to send her small child to Jamaica to be looked after by family members while she waited to come off the waiting list. 

The other case Goldburn highlighted was that of Tabitha Frank, a mother of five in Hartford whose youngest child recently died after falling out a window. Frank, who worked double shifts as a certified nursing assistant, was driving Uber on the side to provide for her family; on the day her son died, she had accepted a ride, leaving the children briefly at home with the expectation her son’s father would be there momentarily.

[RELATED: The forces that shaped a Hartford toddler’s life — and death]

“Tabitha’s story is what’s happening right now with a lot of mothers, a lot of families,” Goldburn said. “Those are the choices that parents have been making because they don’t have care for their children. That’s the choice that families in Connecticut, the most vulnerable families, have been making.”

Goldburn added: “Nothing in the blue ribbon plan changes the situation for any of those mothers next year — or this year.”

A ‘systems approach’ for a ‘broken’ system

Panel member Jessica Sager, chief executive of the All Our Kin network of home-based child care providers, also had reservations about the plan draft. Sager said she supports the proposals to expand Care4Kids eligibility, boost workforce compensation, offer stabilization grants to providers and extend health care benefits to educators in the field. 

“How that’s going to happen, and in particular, how to make it happen equitably … that’s still very much a work in progress,” Sager said. 

In order for it to work, all components of the plan have to be fully funded, she said. “Expanding eligibility to the subsidy program is really no help if you’re going to keep the pool of dollars the same — all that does is grow the waitlist.”

Several panel members and experts agreed that choosing to prioritize some components of the plan over others might have unintended consequences.

Dan Wuori, an early learning researcher with national think tank the Hunt Institute, told members of the panel that the child care market (which, in Connecticut, is 70% privately-operated) doesn’t function in a standard way, where supply and demand balance each other out. 

“Oregon created, through their state budget, thousands of new pre-K slots, but actually enrolled well under their goal because they literally couldn’t find teachers to staff those classrooms,” Wuori said. “So I think you have to be careful.”

The panel has to find a balance, Bye said, between raising pay for teachers and funding to expand program capacity while also increasing financial assistance for parents so they can afford to put their children in child care programs. It’s “about breaking that link between what parents can pay and what staff are paid,” she said. “Some of that we’ve been able to do with increasing rates, stabilization grants, et cetera. But these things are very much interrelated.”

Panel member Karen Lott, director of Women’s League Child Development Center in Bloomfield, said any approach to overhauling early childhood education in Connecticut should consider all of the components of the plan simultaneously. The system has been “broken for a very long time,” she said.

“We have to look at this as a systems approach…  not just, you know, the first priority, the second and the third,” she said. “We look at it as a systematic implementation of all of those pieces.”

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.