In recent months, we’ve heard a lot about child care in the news and from pundits. Whether it’s the so-called “care infrastructure” from Washington, or the recent uptick in tragic child deaths right here in Maine, the last year or so has undoubtedly cast a spotlight on our child care systems and their shortcomings.
Gov. Janet Mills on Monday signed into law a bill that, per its title, supposedly “expands access to childcare.” The new program, though, will inevitably just lead to more increases in child care costs without improving access.
LD 1712 was sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Allagash).
The Mills Administration plans to spend nearly $130 million in “increasing access to high-quality child care and expanding Maine’s child care workforce.” The governor plans to use these mostly federal funds, granted through the American Rescue Plan Act and increases in federal block grant funding, to achieve her objectives.
Though both are laudable goals, the outcome of this colossal injection of funds will only serve to increase costs on Maine families without improving access or the quality of care received.
The stark reality of increasing child care regulation, including policies favoring child care centers over family care providers, is that it drives parents (primarily mothers) out of the workforce, disproportionately affects low-income families and limits choice for Maine families.
In an August 2015 paper from economists at the Mercatus Center, researchers found that overregulation can increase costs so much that women leave the workforce solely to care for their children. “Regulatory burdens that drive up prices of child care can therefore condemn whole sections of the population to a dependence on welfare,” the authors wrote.
Some such costly regulations include ridiculous educational requirements for workers and child-staff ratios, which ensure that care environments have so many workers for each child.
For instance, to be a “head teacher” at a child care center with 13 or more children in Maine, one must have a high school diploma or equivalent and have 12 months of prior employment in a licensed child day care facility. It doesn’t matter if you’ve already raised multiple children on your own, you have to jump through these hoops.
Alternatively, one can have 12 months of experience as an operator of a program for three to 12 children (including as a family day care provider) and have 6 hours of training in child care or early childhood education topics, and still be qualified.
A third option is to have 30 credit hours of college courses, including 6 hours in a field closely related to caring for children and 6 months of experience, or a Child Developmental Associate (CDA) credential.
If reading that exhausts you, you’re not alone. Such strict requirements on the part of caretakers are unnecessary and cumbersome and do little to actually improve the quality of care while sharply raising costs.
In the Mercatus study, researchers noted that “Child-staff ratios and group size limits, which are also regulated, are less effective in improving quality. They are significantly related to the cost of child care, however, and therefore make child care less affordable, especially for low-income families.”
For many of those low-income families in Maine, there is no actual choice. They must work to provide for their families, which has become increasingly more difficult as costs continue to rise.
According to Child Care Aware of America, in 2020, the annual cost for an infant to be cared for in a child care center in Maine was $10,734. For reference, the average annual cost of tuition at one of Maine’s public, four-year universities for the 2019-2020 year was $8,092, roughly 25% less.
That’s also 39% of a single parent’s income.
Placing a child in a family care environment–those who care for children from their residence instead of from a separate facility–was significantly more affordable at $8,580 per year. Still, that remains far too steep for Maine families.
Though the industry has made some steps towards recovery post-pandemic, more than 170 day care centers in the state remain closed, according to a May 30 report from the Portland Press Herald.
The shortfalls of the child care system in Maine are nothing new, though. A 2018 Maine Policy Institute analysis revealed the state lost one-quarter of all licensed child care providers over the preceding decade. State data show the number of center-based care providers grew 13% since 2008, despite losing one-quarter of all licensed providers overall. Small, home-based family care providers–the most affordable and accessible option for the average Maine family–have been shutting their doors en masse.
The above graphic, per Maine Policy Institute, shows just how drastically Maine has suffered at the hand of overregulation during the last 13 years, losing nearly 50% of its family care providers in that time.
The findings show that state regulations propping up and subsidizing formal child care centers, with rules only they can afford to follow, are hurting family child care and subsequently Maine families, both in terms of costs and options for child care.
In Maine, an individual can only watch up to two children at a time before needing a license from the state. Such a confounding regulation severely hampers small-scale family care operations. The state assumes one person cannot watch even three children at a time without needing approval from the government. It’s nonsensical and condescending.
Though some regulation is surely needed to ensure children are not mistreated and are receiving adequate care, the level to which Maine limits flexibility in the industry is both extreme and unnecessary.
The solution to this monumental and complex problem facing Maine lies in deregulating how child care providers can operate. Our lawmakers, and governor, must become more welcoming to family care providers again. They are the most affordable and accessible option for Maine families.
Practically speaking, the care provider does not have to pay for a completely separate facility, so that surely lowers costs right out of the gate. Second, it’s much easier for a father or mother to let their children be cared for by someone down the street than to drive out of their way to a more expensive care center. It can’t get much better than right in your own neighborhood.
The ill-conceived and misguided legislation Mills signed into law Monday will do nothing to cure the illness currently plaguing Maine’s child care industry.
Maine must stop trying to make child care a de-facto wing of the Department of Education and instead treat it like the diverse and complex industry that it is.