A rising number of families in Montgomery County are struggling to find affordable, high quality child care. Census data shows that there are more than 64,852 children below the age of five in the county and the Maryland Family Network reports that regulated child care providers offer only 39,084 slots. This leaves a gap of some 26,000 children. Some undoubtedly stay home with family members and many more are cared for by informal, unregistered providers. Some kids may attend child care in other jurisdictions. But ask any parent about their experience with waiting lists and it is clear that demand far exceeds supply for quality, regulated child care. The skyrocketing price of regulated child care supports this theory. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that parents spend 10% or less of their family income on child care. Montgomery County residents, on average, spent 22% of their income on child care in 2014. Child care in Montgomery County costs between 32% and 40% more than the state average. The State predicts that costs will continue to increase through 2018 by between 9% and 14% on average. Infant care is predicted to increase a staggering 40% over the next three years with family care providers.
To address these challenges, I propose legislation establishing a new Office of Child Care, Early Care and Education. This Office would have a Director with the seniority and authority to shape policy and forge meaningful partnerships across agencies and with the private sector. Some functions would be consolidated from the Early Childhood group in the County's Department of Health and Human Services and other offices with child care functions across the government. The Office would be charged with developing, updating, and implementing a Child Care Strategic Plan that addresses child care and early learning in a comprehensive way, establishing new relationships and partnerships with agencies and businesses, overseeing the selection of child care providers in public space, and building a stronger bond with parents in the community.
As President Obama said in his most recent State of the Union, "It's time we stop treating child care as a side issue, or a women's issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us." I agree with those comments and I believe this Office will help us to appropriately define the challenge and meet it.
In Maryland, most government regulation and promotion of child care is handled by the State, though the County supplements the state's efforts in certain areas. HHS is laser focused, as it's website states, on core services that "protect the community's health, protect the health and safety of at-risk children and vulnerable adults and address basic human needs including food, shelter and clothing." This is as it should be. We rely on this Department to provide a robust safety net that protects our most vulnerable residents.
We do not, however, only provide education for the most disadvantaged children. I believe we should have a policy strategy for child care that is similarly focused on the entire population, while resources are prioritized according to need. Like education, adequate availability of child care affects every family in Montgomery County. A county program that ensures that every family in Montgomery County has access to high quality, affordable, enriching child care is crucial for developing our workforce and economy, ensuring equal opportunity for men and women, and reducing the achievement gap. The creation of this Office will not solve these problems by itself, but it will at least provide us with the analytical framework and focused staffing to make informed investments and take a deliberate approach to define our next steps. The mission is broader than social services and for this reason I believe it is necessary to establish this function as a principal office rather than a division inside of HHS.
The goals for the Office include:
- Researching need, availability and cost of care.
- Identifying measures to reduce the rising cost of child care, and ensuring that affordable early child care and learning are available to all County residents.
- Ensuring that there are sufficient providers and spaces to meet rising demand.
- Improving the overall quality of early care and education to adequately prepare children for kindergarten and beyond.
- Fully integrating child care and early learning into our economic and workforce development strategy.
- Regular reporting on progress towards the plan.