Saturday, April 20, 2024

With Child Care Increasingly Unaffordable, Virginia Lawmakers Propose Long-term Fixes 

Photo by BBC Creative on Unsplash

RICHMOND — As federal relief funds dry up, Virginia policymakers are increasingly looking for solutions to residents’ problems in securing affordable child care.

Jess Mullins Fullen, a mother of two children in Southwest Virginia, said she and her husband work full-time to pay for their most expensive cost: child care.

“There are bigger issues in the world, but workforce support and child care is one of those things where if I’m feeling the impacts — and I can admit that I have certain privileges because of my job and because I’m able to stay at home — I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who don’t have that same kind [of] fluidity when it comes to their workspace,” said Mullins Fullen.

Now, legislators and Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration have put forward more than a dozen bills and budget proposals that focus on increasing the flow of funding to early childhood education and child care, expanding program eligibility and bolstering the provider pool by removing certain requirements and offering incentives.

“There are a host of legislative priorities that we’re all working on in a bipartisan fashion … to make sure that every individual who is seeking child care will have access,” said Del. Briana Sewell, D-Prince William, who sits on the House Early Education Subcommittee. “While we have made significant strides, I think we will all recognize that there’s still quite a way to go.“

The problems facing Virginia families were highlighted this summer in a report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, which conducts analysis and provides oversight of state agencies on behalf of the General Assembly, which found child care is unaffordable for most Virginia families, especially those with low incomes.

According to JLARC, the cost of full-time child care in Virginia ranges between $100 and $440 per week per child, or $5,200 to $22,880 annually for one child.

Nationally, the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, has found that the average annual cost of child care is currently $10,000 for one child, and in some states, it’s as much as $15,000 to $20,000.

Rising inflation has exacerbated the situation. And researchers note cost estimates may actually be less than what parents are paying, since many providers charge fees on top of base tuition.

Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, said he’s concerned that lawmakers seeking to fix problems with the current situation have made subsidizing child care the only answer instead of looking at the economic conditions making child care expensive.

“I think sometimes we need to be careful about assuming that the automatic answer to all of this is ‘more government spending’ and ‘more government policy,’ because quite frankly, I think when we look at our economic situations, some of that is as a result of excess government intervention into the economy,” Freitas said.

Increasing the flow of funding to child care and early childhood education

Youngkin’s budget proposal for the next two years, however, calls for major spending on child care and early childhood education to help fill gaps left as federal pandemic-era programs that expanded child care subsidy and grant programs expire.

This December, the governor proposed $448 million in spending on Virginia early learning and child care programs in each of the next two years, including $25 million to develop public-private partnerships in areas with child care shortages.

Christian Martinez, a spokesman for Youngkin, said roughly $173 million in fiscal year 2025 and $238 million in fiscal year 2026 would go toward the state’s Child Care Subsidy Program. Martinez said those dollars are “new money that would not have been spent on child care otherwise.”

In the General Assembly, lawmakers are also considering two bills that would help meet longer-term state child care needs by creating a funding formula that would determine the minimum amount of funding and number of slots Virginia would need to serve its children every biennium.

House Bill 419 and Senate Bill 54, being carried by Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, and Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, would also create a nonreverting Early Childhood Care and Education Fund that would capture any funds allocated by the state “for the provision of services to families at early childhood care and education sites” that are left unspent at the end of the year. The money in the fund would then be directed into the state’s existing early childhood care and education system.

“Virginia has come a long way in building a unified equitable early childhood education system,” Locke said during a recent Senate Education subcommittee hearing. “SB 54 continues to work by establishing a transparent, predictable formula for funding early childhood slots based on parent demand and a nonreverting fund to enable rollover of unspent funds to serve more children based on family demand and preference.”

Expanding program eligibility

Other legislation this session focuses on increasing the number of families who can qualify for state assistance for child care.

House Bill 407 from Del. Phil Hernandez, D-Norfolk, would make any families receiving government support through programs like Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, automatically qualify for the Child Care Subsidy Program through a policy called categorical eligibility. The House passed the bill on Thursday.

“They’re not starting from scratch,” Hernandez told an education panel earlier this month. “If you’ve already gone to these other programs and you’ve determined your eligibility, you’ve already sort of had a step forward in the process.”

The idea isn’t new, he said: The last state budget included language piloting the use of categorical eligibility for the subsidy program for families already enrolled in Medicaid or WIC.

“This bill would simply make the policy permanent by giving it a home in the code rather than letting it sunset in the budget,” Hernandez said.

In the same vein, House Bill 627 from Del. Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, D-Alexandria, would let employees of licensed child care providers participate in the Child Care Subsidy Program at no cost and with no copayment. And House Bill 984 from Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, would create a work group to study the possibility of expanding the availability of Head Start programs, which provide health, nutrition and education services to children under age 5 from low-income families, at community colleges.

“There is a critical need for additional child care options that are affordable and high quality for Virginia’s families,” Tran said during a Jan. 24 House Education subcommittee hearing. “Knowing we are having more working adults and many of them are parents, I think it’s a prime opportunity for us to explore how we could help support the success of those students, as well as current parent-students, by establishing Head Start centers across our community college system.”

Bolstering the provider pool by removing certain requirements and offering incentives

Another set of bills focuses on increasing child care availability by removing certain requirements for providers and offering them incentives to provide their services.

According to data from the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, 47% of people in Virginia, many of them low income, live in a child care desert.

House Bills 146 and 739, carried by Dels. Anne Tata, R-Virginia Beach, and Sewell, would exempt child care providers who serve on a military installation or provide care to service members from state licensure requirements in an effort to reduce what the lawmakers described as unnecessarily duplicative rules.

Both Sewell and Tata represent significant military populations in Northern Virginia and Virginia Beach. Sewell said many service members struggle to find quality, affordable child care that is compatible with their work schedules.

She noted that providers affected by the bill already “have to go through the military certification to get authorization of approval to serve as a child care provider.”

“And their standards are actually significantly higher than that of the commonwealth,” she added.

House Bill 475 from Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, would allow volunteers who pass a fingerprint-based background check through the Central Criminal Records Exchange or Federal Bureau of Investigation and have supervision to work in certain child care centers before their full background check is complete.

Coyner said the bill aims to fix delays in the full background check process that prevent volunteers from immediately being employed.

“Therefore they end up working somewhere else rather than staying in child care,” she said.

To relax some training measures, Del. Tony Wilt, R-Harrisonburg, proposed House Bill 1024, which minimizes any pre-service training for child care employees to only what’s relevant to their roles and responsibilities.

Another bill carried by Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Spotsylvania, to exempt religious institutions from having to obtain a state license to run a child day center failed in a House education subcommittee over concerns it would set a dangerous precedent.

During a Wednesday meeting, Orrock said the bill’s intent was not to make child care less safe, but instead to address shortages of child care providers. Religious institutions would still be required to submit background checks and meet health and safety standards, he noted.

However, Del. Laura Cohen, D-Fairfax, said she was “incredibly concerned that the idea would be to lessen regulation and accountability in order to open up spaces in child care, even if somebody … had a hard time finding child care.”

The Senate is considering a similar bill.

Other measures try to make it easier for providers to find space for child care centers. Senate Bill 13, which passed the Senate unanimously, and House Bill 281 would let office buildings be used for child care.

Finally, some proposals are offering providers money: The funding formula bills carried by Bulova and Locke would create a new incentive program known as RecognizeB5 for early childhood teachers who work directly with children for at least 30 hours per week.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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