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New Cuyahoga County program seeks to retain child care professionals, help parents afford child care

Taja Salett, an early Head Start teacher, center, speaks on a panel Tuesday where the city of Cleveland announced new funding for an early childhood education initiative.
Conor Morris
Taja Salett, an early Head Start teacher, center, speaks on a panel in October 2022, when the city of Cleveland announced new funding for an early childhood education initiative.

A new program to help parents afford child care, and to help child care providers make ends meet, is ramping up in Cuyahoga County.

Officials with the nonprofit Starting Point – which is contracted by the city of Cleveland to run the program - say while marketing and an online application are still in the works, qualifying parents and child care centers can now contact Starting Point to access the assistance.

Nancy Mendez, president and CEO of Starting Point, says the program has two main branches: about $1.9 million to provide scholarships to parents to help them pay for child care and preschool, and about $2.4 million to provide signing bonuses to new child care workers, along with additional money to support them staying in that role.

Kara Porter, executive vice president of Starting Point, says the average cost of childcare is $1,100 per month, while the average pay for child care providers professionals is between $12 and $15 an hour. According to a report provided by Starting Point, local child care and preschools are feeling a dual pinch: 65% of child care centers reported low enrollment in December, while they’re also facing a “staffing crisis,” with 2,500 vacant positions in northeast Ohio, in part due to the low pay.

“(It’ll be) first come, first serve,” Mendez said. “We're going to try to get these dollars out to the community to help people get to work and help these centers stay open.”

The program – funded by $4.4 million in Cleveland’s American Rescue Plan Act dollars - was initially announced by Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb and local nonprofits last October, but there’s been little news on it since. Mendez said that's because the city and Starting Point just last month finalized the contract between those two entities; she said the delay was due to the "wheels of government run(ning) a little bit slower" while both sides also needed time to work out specifics on outcomes the program needed to achieve.

Porter and Mendez said parents and child care professionals alike will be eligible for the program as long as they’re earning less than 300% of the federal poverty line. Porter said there are short-term scholarships that will cover the full cost of child care for parents, while there are also longer-term scholarships to cover 50% of the expenses for care. She said they expect to serve about 250 children through that program.

Meanwhile, Mendez and Porter said they expected to help 5,000 child care professionals through the bonus and retention aspect of the program. Mendez said child care centers will be the ones applying for those funds directly, to pass along to the workers.

Porter said the scholarships should help parents who are missing out on public subsidies due to their income.

“It’s going to help people who are making a little bit more than they would be able to get publicly funded child care, to be able to fill that gap so that they can work,” she said.

The Starting Point report noted local child care centers and preschools are struggling.

“More than half of programs reported that their bottom line has been impacted by low enrollment, staffing issues or both, resulting in reduced operational capacity, and/or classroom closures,” the report explains.

Mendez said the goal is to spend the funds down over the next two years. Starting Point and the city have not yet provided details on the cost of the program.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.