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Travis Commissioners add $1 million to child care program

Wednesday, November 13, 2013 by Mark Richardson

Travis County Commissioners have approved investing an additional $1 million over the next two years to bolster early childhood programs, particularly those offering child care for low-income families.


Commissioners approved a two-part plan that will change the procurement process for existing and expanded programs in Fiscal Year 2015, and will make a one-time $500,000 investment in a direct child care subsidy for FY2014. The county will competitively procure services for 2015, with that program beginning this December in order to give current providers an opportunity to prepare for the new system.


According to county staff, the primary reason for the new expenditures is to give low-income parents who work, or are looking for work, dependable child care.


“Without question, this is one of those things that you have to try to help, because if the families don’ have the ability to find some dollars for child care, you never have a chance of getting them out of this god-awful cycle that they are in,”  said Commissioner Gerald Daugherty.


But Daugherty also questioned the program’s sustainability. “I don’t know how you break this cycle without this funding. But if we spend $500,000 this year, we will probably need to spend another $500,000 or more the next. (So) unless we are going to get a lot better as a county at running our government, the only other pot of money to go to is the taxpayers.”


The county currently has about $800,000 budgeted for early childhood programs in 2014. Tuesday’s vote will add $500,000 to that amount, making a total of $1.3 million available. The commissioners’ vote will also transition the current system of allocating those dollars through a mostly competitive process, where providers will bid to provide services to the county. That system will be fully operational by 2015.


According to Sherri Fleming, the County Executive for Health and Human Services and Veterans Services, starting in 2015 all Travis County early childhood investments will align with the Austin-Travis County School Readiness Action Plan, a United Way- backed plan to improve the education opportunities for all children before age six.


Fleming said the investments should provide support to families with young children, early care and education, services to vulnerable families with young children, and other services.


The timeline for the program is to prepare the scope of work and other documentation by December, release an RFP by Feb. 14, 2014, review and score proposals and approve new contracts between March and July 2014, with the new contracts beginning in October 2014.


The $500,000 increase in 2014 will be a one-time expenditure designed to “jump-start” the programs, Fleming said. Commissioners said that while they were making a large expenditure for the program, the alternative to not spending could be worse.


“To answer Gerald’s question, there is another source of long-term funding, and that is to produce in these families kids who are healthy and can move forward, as opposed to the alternative,” said Commissioner Bruce Todd. “That’s what we wake up to every morning. I would argue that we should be looking at these things in terms of the quality that’s implied, but also what we are doing from a family standpoint.”


Todd said the county should also get local businesses on board, since they too stand to benefit from the existence of better child care for their employees.


Commissioner Ron Davis wondered how to measure the long-term effect of the program.


“I applaud what you are doing here, but over the years there has been a significant amount of money spent on early childhood programs, yet it appears we haven’t made much impact on the dropout rate,” he said. “As a result of that, they become part of the other system that taxpayers have to bear. Somewhere along the line we have to be able to measure what was done for this student, and if the person drops out, somewhere along the line we are going to have to do a better job of making the dollar hit the bull’s-eye.”


Despite some misgivings about the ongoing cost and the potential effectiveness, commissioners voted 5-0 to approve the plan.

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