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February 15, 2024

Lamont’s child care overhaul plan gets plenty of pushback

ALLY LEMASTER / CT MIRROR Gov. Ned Lamont interacts with children at Hyland Early Learning Center in Hartford before proposing his early child education bill on Feb. 14, 2024.

Gov. Ned Lamont laid out a package of child care policy proposals Wednesday, the first step toward implementing an expert panel’s five-year plan to overhaul the state’s struggling early childhood education system. 

But the proposal faced immediate pushback — both from child care advocates who don’t think it goes far enough, and from public education advocates who lament that the boost for child care in the governor’s budget could come at the expense of K-12 funding.

At a press conference at the Hyland Early Learning Center in Hartford on Wednesday, Lamont said he didn’t see it as a tradeoff.

“I consider this education,” Lamont said. “We have put our resources where our mouth is, so to speak. This is early childhood education — giving our kids the very best head start in life because they deserve it.”

Lamont signed an executive order last March assigning a “Blue Ribbon Panel” of public and private sector leaders, early childhood experts, educators and parents to develop a strategic plan to overhaul the state’s child care system. In December, that panel presented its plan — which carried a $2 billon price tag over the next five years.

Members of the panel acknowledged the magnitude of that investment. They didn’t expect the budget to force lawmakers to choose between resources for early childhood and K-12 education.

“We’re just making a huge mistake when we pit these systems against each other,” said Jessica Sager, chief executive of the All Our Kin network of home-based child care providers, and a member of the panel. “We’re actually a pretty wealthy state with a surplus … We need to think critically about how much we’re willing to spend across the whole domain of a child’s life.”

Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, who also served on the Blue Ribbon Panel, said she supported proposals in the panel’s report.

“I couldn’t be more on board with it, but I don’t want to do it at the expense of K-12,” she said.

The governor’s $43.4 million child care proposal includes a 17% increase in funding for state-supported preschool programs, as well as an 11% increase in rates for Care 4 Kids — the state program that subsidizes child care for lower-income families — and an additional 1,600 slots in that program. 

The legislation proposes shifting the way the state pays for these programs to funding on a by-classroom basis, as opposed to paying per child. Beth Bye, commissioner of the Office of Early Childhood, said that will mean child care providers can afford to hire additional staff even if they don’t have a full class of students yet.

“It might sound like a little difference, but it's a big difference,” Bye said.

The plan includes funding for a pilot program known as “tri-share,” which would split the costs of child care evenly between the state, employers and families. Groton-based military submarine manufacturer General Dynamics Electric Boat will be contributing $500,000 to the pilot, Bye said. 

It also includes plans for a startup “incubator” for new child care businesses in Eastern Connecticut, and it provides child care teachers with access to “health care navigators” to help them find and enroll in health insurance coverage.

The plan also invests $1.8 million in Sparkler, a screening app used by more than 200,000 families across the state to monitor their children’s development.

“The governor is looking to build a system that includes infrastructure, tuition support, helping families find care, some data and technology improvements,” Bye said. 

Sager said while the governor’s plan addresses many of the items on All Our Kin’s agenda, the proposals come up short of what home-based providers would like to see. Many of the components of the plan, she said, are more like “halfway measures.” (The Blue Ribbon Panel’s year-one recommendations would have required $148 million.)

“It won’t get us where we need to be, but we need it,” Sager said. “We now would love to see not just a step but a leap that would get us to where we need to be.”

Merrill Gay, executive director of the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance, said he thought the Blue Ribbon Panel’s recommendations were “relatively modest” and were “focused really on increased female labor force participation, not fixing the early childhood system.”

Gay wants lawmakers to adjust the fiscal guardrails and expand funding for child care, as well as other programs that need it. “We shouldn’t be pitting a little kid against the interests of their older sister,” he said.

CT Mirror staff writer Jessika Harkay contributed to this report.

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