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children at day care

How can city government help Austin parents with child care?

Wednesday, April 11, 2018 by Jack Craver

The high cost of day care, which can easily run $1,000 per month, is one of a number of expenses that are making the city increasingly inhospitable to working- and middle-class families. City Council is exploring ways to make child care more accessible and affordable.

The city’s own employees are struggling to pay the high child care bill. In a recent survey of city workers, over 1,000 reported having children under the age of 6, and 37 percent of those workers reported spending more than 10 percent of their income on child care programs.

At a Tuesday work session, Donna Sundstrom, assistant director at Austin Public Health, outlined a dozen recommended actions Council could take to help out, both for city employees and the broader community.

One idea is to partner with Austin Community College to open up a child care center on its new campus on the former site of Highland Mall. ACC had planned on opening a center to serve the children of its students and staff but has thus far shelved the plans due to cost. The city could help pay for the new center in exchange for opening it up to the children of city employees as well.

Another proposal is for the city to partner with the Austin Independent School District to use vacant or “underutilized” classrooms to expand prekindergarten programs for 3-year-olds, which already exist at a number of AISD campuses.

Generally, AISD’s pre-K programs for 3-year-olds are open only to families below a certain income threshold (the same used for free or reduced-price school lunches). The program is free and the school district is reimbursed for each participating child by a federal block grant that is administered by the state.

But even though AISD receives funding for each child, that money doesn’t cover the start-up costs of setting up a pre-K program. Those costs include everything from facility space to equipment, explained Sue Carpenter, chief programs officer for United Way, which works closely with child care services.

The city could chip in to help AISD expand the pre-K program, which is both a helpful source of free child care and a critical educational tool that prepares kids for school.

While most of the programs are only available to low-income students, Winn Elementary also accepts students from higher-income families, who pay tuition. In an interview with the Austin Monitor, Carpenter said that a program that includes kids from a mix of economic backgrounds is ideal and will hopefully become more common.

Other ways that the city can help with child care include building and operating its own day care centers or helping other organizations to create new centers.

In addition to increasing access to child care, Council members are also interested in enhancing the quality of existing programs to make them as educational as possible.

Although there are 298 licensed child care providers in the city, only 53 of them are certified by the Texas Rising Star quality rating system, which is based on a number of metrics, notably staff training. Separately, according to a 2016 survey by United Way, only about half of the lead teachers at child care centers throughout the city had completed a bachelor’s degree.

The problem, explained Catherine McHorse, United Way’s early childhood education director, is that teachers generally expect that they will get pay raises if they are going to go through the effort of getting additional training or certifications. The programs rarely have the money, however, to boost teachers’ pay because much of their revenue comes from subsidies for low-income children. The subsidies, however, do not increase to account for the pay raises that a teacher would expect.

“Even if there’s a desire to become high quality,” said McHorse, “many of our centers can’t afford to do so.”

Mayor Steve Adler said that he supported Council taking action on “at least some of these” proposals, particularly those that would leverage dollars from other sources, such as the state or federal government.

Photo by Airman 1st Class Hunter Brady [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

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