Montgomery County Council President Hans Riemer will be introducing a new bill on Tuesday, the "Ready to Learn Initiative" (the Initiative) that is essentially a fresh take on child care subsidy. The text of the bill can be found here: http://montgomerycountymd.granicus.com/MetaViewer.php?view_id=169&event_id=7645&meta_id=150607.
The Initiative is interesting for many reasons. First, it structured as an "open solicitation" available to all licensed child care providers. Maryland has some of the strictest licensing requirements in the nation holding providers accountable to a high level of minimum expectations. Families at lower income levels (200% of the Federal Poverty Level which is a family income of about $30,000) would be able to access all of the same licensed care options as their higher income counterparts.
Second, the open solicitation model channels market forces to offer a reimbursement that providers can either take or leave. If the reimbursement rate makes economic sense and requires few additional, costly conditions, providers may be quick to participate. On the other hand, the County would find that low rates with conditions that significantly increase the cost of care, are otherwise not achievable, or that providers find developmentally inappropriate, may result in few providers participating in the program. A suggested amendment to the Bill would be to require in the legislation that the HHS regulations set a reimbursement of licensed programs to be at the current market rate. (HHS is in the process of conducting a cost of care study that looks at what providers currently charge and what they would have to charge to better compensate their staff and build to higher levels of quality. This would provide the data needed to set competitive rates.)
Third, under this Initiative, quality improvement is incentivized not through mandates, but through market incentives as higher reimbursement rates would be available to providers who get accreditation or reach higher levels of EXCELS, Maryland’s quality rating and improvement system. Providers want to strive for higher levels of quality but. in order to survive, have to operate within whatever economic constructs are in place for their particular community. Incentives, if they are priced adequately, allow providers to incorporate different components that parents can afford and that improve care. One concern would be that if the legislation doesn’t tie the reimbursement level to the current market rate, with higher rates available that are reflective of the true cost of care, the Initiative wouldn’t provide enough funding so that providers can pay teachers and provide benefits at a level that are appropriate for the work. The Initiative should set a reimbursement floor so that participating providers can appropriately take care of their staff and have sufficient resources to increase quality.
Fourth. and perhaps most importantly, the Initiative, as currently written, is not restricted to four-year-olds and allows HHS to set a reimbursement rate for infant and toddler care as well as before and after school care. THIS IS HUGE. Instead of being a destabilizing force, a new subsidy program that applies to all ages could bolster our current providers and offer parents more affordable options than ever before.
Finally, the Initiative is a model that, if successful, could easily be expanded on a sliding scale to middle income families. If we can show that this structure is a potential way forward, supporting both families and providers, it could generate political support to continue to increase funding and make the program available to broader section of families. How great would it be if all of our County’s families had the purchasing power as our highest income families currently have to get the care they need for their children? We want to see providers competing for the business of low and middle income families just as much as they compete for higher income families. The result would be programs with economically diverse families together. This would be a great improvement for all. Additionally, HHS could set reimbursement rates that encourage such needs as non-traditional hours, part time care, and support the full array of child care formats that currently exist to help families.
We need to continue to talk through the pros and cons of this bill. One possible flaw is that it does little to support our current system of child care subsidy, the Working Parents Assistance Program (WPA). Perhaps co-locating the administration of the Initiative with those who currently administer WPA would be one way to address this. If these two programs co-exist, perhaps they can draw off of the best features each has to offer and give HHS the funding to bring the number of staff back to the pre-recession levels they used to be years ago. Another issue is how much funding would be available and whether HHS and our current Executive would support this. Perhaps if we could start off with three million dollars to serve 100+ children, it would demonstrate the potential for this program that our next County Executive (three candidates for the job are currently in the Council and would need to vote on this legislation) might want to support and find more robustly.
While the outcome of this Bill is unclear, we have to thank Councilmember Riemer and Ken Silverman for their efforts to move the conversation towards concrete steps our County can take to make Montgomery County friendly to families with young children. The ideas they have proposed through this Initiative will certainly result in significant conversation. Providers need to think through the implications of this Initiative and raise questions. The County Commission on Child Care may want to make recommendations for what HHS should include in the regulations. Perhaps the actual formulation of the regulations should occur in the Early Childhood Coordinating Council which seems uniquely situated for such an effort. It would be nice to have something concrete to work on that would have the potential to significantly improve child care for our County’s families.