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by Kimberly Rivers

This week as the California legislature is passing the first post-pandemic state budget with an unprecedented and unexpected surplus (June 15 is the deadline) those in the child care and early education sector in Ventura County are watching two things closely. 

First, how local government — county and city — will allocate the federal American Rescue Plan funds being dispersed by the state. Second, whether the state will update the reimbursement rates for child care providers who serve low income families.

Jack Hinojosa, CEO Child Development Resources

Jack Hinojosa, CEO of Child Development Resources. Photo submitted.

Last year, in the first month of the pandemic, three organizations came together to form the Ventura County Early Childhood Education Taskforce: Child Development Resources, First 5 Ventura County and the Ventura County Office of Education, Early Childhood programs. 

“We began meeting every Friday to track how the child care providers and access to child care providers were being impacted by the pandemic,” said Jack Hinojosa, CEO of Childhood Development Resources, a private nonprofit community-based organization that has been the county’s Head Start grantee since 1965. “Also, as a task force, we have been tracking state and federal dollars going into early childhood education and advocating how those funds should be used.” 

Right now a main focus of the group is aligning with child care providers and agencies across the state to lobby the legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom for one key change in the state’s budget: ensuring that reimbursement rates provide a living wage for state-subsidized child care providers. 

“In a year that the state has such a huge surplus, why wouldn’t you invest in making sure these providers are paid a reasonable wage? It doesn’t make sense,” said Hinojosa. The task force is “also projecting that if that rate reimbursement issue isn’t resolved in the final [state] budget, we estimate that 1,200 licensed child care spots [for children] in Ventura County will be lost permanently.” 

Mable Munoz, VCOE

Mabel Munoz, director of Early Childhood Programs at Ventura Office of Education.

Women heavily impacted by child care issues

“This is a women’s issue. If there isn’t affordable child care, it makes it impossible for women to go back and enter the workforce,” said Mabel Muñoz, director of early childhood programs at the Ventura County Office of Education. In the county “there is always a waitlist” for child care for children under 3 and a proper reimbursement rate would help to remedy that by making it more sustainable to operate a child care business. She said more may open, providing more spaces for children. 

“This matters. Large numbers of women are leaving the workforce in the U.S.; child care is part of this equation,” said Senator Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara), speaking to the Ventura County Reporter on June 14 from Sacramento, where the legislature is working on passing a budget by the midnight deadline on Tuesday, June 15. 

Sen. Monique Limón

Senator Monique Limón, District 19, D- Santa Barbara. Photo submitted.

Limón represents California’s Senate District 19 which includes the majority of Ventura County and all of Santa Barbara County. 

She was confident that a budget will be passed by the deadline and sent to the governor and there is “a very good chance that [rate reform] will be included in the budget.” It is included in the Senate and Assembly proposed budget, which she said is “similar” but not “identical” to Newsom’s budget released last month. 

“In areas where it differs, those will be pieces of negotiation as we move forward past June 15,” said Limón. Items that don’t get passed now, that are in the legislatures’ version of the budget, “get worked out in the trailer bills through August.” 

Hinojosa was critical of Newsom’s May budget revision of $267 billion for failing to provide funding for the rate reform,  saying the budget “failed to include women and children” and in particular “women of color.” He said the child care sector has been told to “be patient,” that the rates would be updated. While the budget included a focus on expanding transitional kindergarten programs, Hinojosa and the task force wonder why the existing early child care programs and workforce seem to be missing from the budget, when these programs serve the segment of the population hit the hardest by the pandemic — low income families of color. 

Outdated rates for child care workers

Limón also emphasized the request for rate reform in child care is nothing new. 

“It’s decades in the making,” she said. But now in the wake of the pandemic, the broader public has seen how a lack of child care can impact businesses and the wider economy.  “After COVID we have all economists saying you need to have child care available and school reopened for a healthy economy.” In a way, the experience of the pandemic has abolished “the very naive idea that child care is babysitting, that is not the case. Child care is about a means to keep people working in an economy that is thriving.” 

Hinojosa points to the fact that child care providers have unionized and have been negotiating for the past year with the governor’s office. But when advocates saw the May budget revision was “silent” on the rate reform issue, they wondered “why isn’t it being addressed? . .  The economy can’t recover if parents don’t have access to child care . . . help families earn while children learn.” 

In 2019,  22,000 children in Ventura County aged birth to 5 years attended state subsidized child care providers. According to state records, over 90% of these child care providers are women and nearly 70% of them are women of color, statewide. Over half of the providers themselves qualify for government assistance for their own needs. 

The state reimburses certain licensed child care providers, both those that are home-based and those that are center-based, in a more classroom-like environment. Typically the home-based providers care for ages birth to 5, although some go up to age 12 and offer evening and overnight child care. Generally the centers provide care to elementary-aged children. 

Prior to the pandemic and today, these providers were reimbursed at rates well below the current minimum wage at about $12 an hour (median wage). When expenses and costs get factored in, some are paid as little as $5 an hour. More than half of providers rely on government assistance for their own living expenses due to low earnings in their child care business. 

This is because the state has maintained old reimbursement rates from 2016. 

Financial squeeze for parents and providers 

Post-pandemic, most child care providers were forced to close, at least temporarily for public health reasons. Then as essential workers, those providers who could find and afford additional cleaning supplies, masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, and were able to follow the required social distancing rules, could reopen. 

Petra Puls, executive director, First 5 Ventura County

Petra Puls, executive director, First 5 Ventura County. Photo submitted.

“Access to early education is a big equity issue and it’s been exacerbated by the pandemic,” said Petra Puls, executive director with First 5 Ventura County. She said in the midst of the pandemic “many of the families that rely on publicly subsidized child care weren’t able to access that.” 

According to data compiled by the Ventura County Early Childhood Education Taskforce, in January 2020 there were 517 licensed home-based providers in the county. By the end of March 2020, 44 had closed. In July, another 29 closed. By the end of July, only 30 had reopened. A handful of these were newly licensed providers. In January 2021, there were 454 in operation. Child care centers were also hit hard. In January 2020, there were 310 in Ventura County; by the end of May 2020, 157 had closed. In January 2021 there were 259 child care centers open. The reduction in the number of child care providers widens the gap of access to care for families in need. 

That was compounded by what Hinojosa called a “SHE- session, rather than recession. Women had to leave the workforce in record numbers because of the child care responsibilities they now had,” as schools and child care providers had to close. 

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Source: Ventura County Early Childhood Education Taskforce.

The providers who were open and operating during the thick of the pandemic were impacted as well. With many parents out of work, working from home or concerned about exposure, many children were staying home — resulting in costs going up for providers while revenue plummeted. Many had to decide if it was worth it, financially and healthwise, to remain open. 

“When we look at current child care providers, the majority are women,” said Puls.  “A very large percentage are women of color. What ends up happening is the very low reimbursement rates further exacerbate the problem. What does that say about us as a government, society, a community and how we value what happens in those early years?” 

Hinojosa pointed out that Newsom made Transitional Kindergarten (TK) “ a big part of the budget” but the task force is advocating for a more “mixed delivery system” that “acknowledges the current infrastructure and importance of care and programs for kids younger than those served in TK classrooms. “More investment in infants and toddlers ages 0-3 is crucially important.” 

Moreover, TK programs generally cater to middle and upper income families. If all the funding goes to TK, “there is no investment in the existing programs” for the younger years, which primarily serve low income families and are made up of low income working providers.

Early childhood care options

For those families who qualify for state-subsidized child care there are two main options: a family child care center that is based in a provider’s home, who is licensed by the state; and a child care center, also state licensed but typically in a classroom-based environment. 

“Rate reform and ensuring fair and equitable reimbursement for providers . . . is a big step in ensuring equitable access,” said Puls. “Providers right now are reimbursed at rates established in 2016. The cost of living has increased. It’s just not fair, it’s not equitable.” 

The rate pay structure is supposed to be reviewed every two years, and it has been reviewed, but for reasons that remain unclear, the rate of reimbursement has not been increased since 2016. 

The minimum wage in the state has risen 55% since 2015, but not for early child care providers. 

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Source: Ventura County Early Childhood Education Taskforce.

Care providers operating under Title 5 are governed by the California Department of Education and the rate of reimbursement is standardized across the state. Therefore, it does not take into account variances in cost of living from one region or county to another. 

This “different reimbursement structure for different types of care leads to additional inequities,” said Puls, and the care providers are “forced to make due with what’s available and not necessarily what’s needed to provide a high quality learning environment.”

Puls said a provider may charge $200 a week for child care. “That’s a very good deal by the way.” But the provider will only receive a $150 reimbursement a week, so the family would be asked to pay the difference out of pocket. “But if they can’t pay it, a lot of the time the provider will continue to serve them and take a pay cut, if you will. This is why rate reform is so important.” 

“They are an underpaid and undervalued workforce that we are relying on to give kids the best start in life,” Puls continued. “It’s such an important job and it’s important to recognize it as such, by providing a living wage and access to healthcare benefits . . . Because providers are not getting paid a livable wage, they are leaving the field for other opportunities. That translates into fewer spaces being available,” and that will lead to a “longer term economic impact for our county.” 

In addition, a living wage for care providers “allows women to return to the workforce,” said Muñoz. “It’s important to connect the dots. It would mean we’ll have less programs closing their doors and more programs entering into the space to create opportunity for birth to 3 year olds in a way that they never had before.” 

Task force seeks 5% allocation

The county is slated to have, from the state, about $300 million in federal funds through the American Rescue Plan. The county will determine where $164 million of that will be used for county needs and the remaining $136 million will be allocated out to the 10 cities “for them to invest,” Hinojosa explained. 

The task force is asking that 5% of those funds be set aside through 2024 to support early child care in their communities. There are about “57,000 infants, toddlers and preschoolers” in Ventura County, said Hinojosa. “About 7% of the population. We felt that 5% set aside is an equitable ask on how the county and cities could distribute these funds.” 

In a letter dated March 26 addressed to Mike Powers, CEO of Ventura County, and the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, the task force laid out its proposal and strategies to ensure that disparities exacerbated by the pandemic for families with young children are addressed (1). 

Puls said communities will continue to see the impacts in the years ahead. “Housing is a big issue in our county, the pandemic has forced families to double and triple up. When you have that kind of stress over your head, it has a huge impact on young children.” 

To help address that she suggested, “We need to be prepared as a community, as a society, to do what we can to help mitigate some of these negative impacts . . . [That] will depend on what ends up in the final state budget [aimed at] helping to stabilize families, financially as quickly as possible.” 

As of press deadline a budget was still not approved by the state. By publication, a budget will likely be approved. The online story will be updated.