Pennsylvania Rescue Plan makes crucial long-term investment in child care

Following a weekend celebrating Mother's Day, it's relevant to talk about policies that can benefit Pennsylvania moms and their families. Affordable access to child care.

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the nation's child care system and revealed long-standing challenges and inequities in how working parents access care. President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan makes a bold investment of nearly $40 billion to help states address this child care crisis. But how Pennsylvania chooses to invest its share of those funds is largely up to us, and we have both a moral and economic obligation to make child care work better for families and businesses and, therefore, the future of our economy.

The Pennsylvania Rescue Plan – House Democrats' proposal for investing the federal stimulus dollars – makes much-needed reforms and improvements to allow parents employed in a post-COVID workforce to get the child care that they need and deserve.

The most universal barriers to quality child care and early childhood education are affordability and access. For families living in poverty, child care comprises nearly a third of overall household budget and nationally, about 39% of Black young children live in poverty, compared with just 13% of white children. Here in Pennsylvania, 89% of children living in high poverty areas – which traditionally means less availability of high-quality child care centers – are children of color. At the same time, parents of these children are more likely to have jobs that require non-traditional shifts – places such as hospitals, nursing homes, grocery stores and restaurants, creating more issues with child care access.

Our plan invests $50 million to provide grants to businesses and other employers that step up to meet this challenge by offering child care for their workers, on site. These grants will increase access to care for parents, especially those needing care during non-traditional hours, and help businesses in recruiting and retaining workers. Providing high-quality child care at work provides better peace of mind for parents and fosters a work environment that will lead to better employee satisfaction and retention.

The PA Rescue Plan also allocates $100 million to clean up and remediate environmental hazards in child care settings or make other needed capital improvements. This might be necessary for a center to continue or expand operations, especially if it is borrowing to stay afloat. Most importantly, it provides a safe and healthy place for young children to learn and thrive.

Finally, we should invest in the long-term health of our child care system by reassessing what it truly means to be a "high quality" child care provider. Currently, to receive the highest subsidized reimbursement rate through Pennsylvania's Keystone STARS rating system, a center must employ a certain percentage of teachers with four-year or advanced degrees. This is a high burden for child care centers, however, because early childhood education is a traditionally low-paid field.

Additionally, in certain parts of the state, there might not be a high enough number of college graduates interested in the field to create a large enough applicant pool or alternatively, enough graduates able to afford to work for the salary provided while covering student loan payments. However, locally owned neighborhood centers that are well designed to connect children to their cultural and linguistic needs could be offering higher quality learning to the populations that they serve, yet still be an affordable option for the state and its residents.

Our recovery plan would invest $20 million to redesign the Keystone STARS program to elevate more child care centers to meet the variety of high quality standards to receive the optimal amount of funding – thereby increasing Pennsylvania family's access to high quality child care. The plan further allocates $50 million to invest in professional development, as well as increase overall availability of early childhood educators. This would greatly reduce inequities in care access between different geographic, racial and socioeconomic populations throughout the state.

As Pennsylvania begins a path to recovery, we must ensure that early childhood programs are structured and funded in a way that acknowledges and attempts to correct ingrained inequalities that have persisted for too long and that we are investing in the future of our children and our economy. That means leveraging our federal stimulus dollars to provide not just temporary relief from the impacts of COVID, but a reset on the way we support Pennsylvania families.