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Child care advocates petition Ohio legislature to restore and boost funding amid child care 'crisis'

Ohio JFS Director Matt Damschroder, left, listens in to a preschool lesson from Brittani Woods, right, at Murtis Taylor's Kathryn R. Tyler Center in Cleveland.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
Ohio Department of Job and Family Services Director Matt Damschroder, left, listens to a preschool lesson from Brittani Woods, right, at Murtis Taylor's Kathryn R. Tyler Center in Cleveland during a visit in March 2023.

Child care advocates and providers in Ohio lobbied state lawmakers Wednesday to boost funding to the child care system in Ohio, which they say is facing a crisis with workforce shortages and parents unable to afford those services.

Katie Kelly, executive director of the Cleveland nonprofit PRE4CLE, said the current version of the state’s budget bill being considered by the Ohio House cut out a recommendation from Gov. Mike DeWine to provide $150 million that would expand access to child care scholarships for parents and caregivers in “critical occupations” — jobs like nurses and first responder.

About $10 million was also stripped from the bill which would support mental health professionals going into early childhood centers to help child care professionals deal with serious behavioral issues that have been on the rise in recent years.

Kelly will testify Wednesday before the Ohio House Finance committee to request reinstatement of those provisions, joining other advocates requesting the same, in addition to increased funding on a number of other fronts in the area of child care in Ohio.

She’ll also be requesting the state create a new $75 million fund to provide “stabilization grants” to child care providers, Kelly said.

“(That will) provide more support for attracting and retaining a quality workforce and really getting through this continued crisis in the child care system that we’re still in as a result of years of underfunding and also as a result of COVID-19,” she said.

The state had provided roughly $750 million during the last several years to help child care centers maintain operations during the pandemic and to recruit staff. The new $75 million request would be a continuation of that relief, Kelly said.

“It (state relief) has worked really well for the past several years to rebuild to where we are today,” she said. “But even with those funds, we have many classrooms across the state that are still closed.”

In Northeast Ohio, Kelly estimated a shortage of 2,500 child care positions that are unfilled. That’s partly because the average salary of child care providers in Cuyahoga County hovers around $13 an hour.

“We cannot compete with Amazon and many of the other service-sector jobs that are now available, paying a higher wage, offering greater benefits,” she said.

Lynanne Gutierrez, of early childhood advocacy nonprofit Groundwork Ohio, told legislators Wednesday morning that many parents – and moms especially – can’t get back to work even if they want to due to the cost of child care.

She noted the story of an Oberlin, Ohio, mother who was being paid $13 an hour to get her credentials to work in child care, but because she couldn’t find access to infant care in her community, she’s had to step out of that program.

“Not only is she not bringing in additional income, they’re living on her husband’s income of $17 an hour,” she said. “She doesn’t have care for her infant, so she still can’t seek alternative employment.”

The budget bill does keep in a recommendation from DeWine to increase eligibility in the state’s program that helps parents, from 142% to 160% of the federal poverty level, to pay for child care. Gutierrez and Kelly welcomed that provision. But it's still hard for parents to make ends meet, said Robyn Lightcap of Dayton nonprofit Preschool Promise.

"It's still radically low because you can imagine being a single mom with one child making $15 an hour, $30,000 a year and having to spend $10- to $12- to $15,000 a year in child care, the math does not work," she said.

Gutierrez said her organization does advocate for an increase in the income eligibility to 200% of the federal poverty level. But given child care centers’ struggles to adequately staff classrooms, they won't be pushing for the increase in the current budget bill.

She noted surveys suggest nearly 70% of Ohio moms would work or work more if they had access to subsidized child care. Meanwhile, 62% of children in the state of Ohio come into the kindergarten classroom “not ready to learn” due to a lack of preparation in preschool or in other child care settings beforehand. Gutierrez said.

PRE4CLE and its executive director have previously lobbied the state for increased funding for child care centers, noting many are dealing with serious infrastructure issues along with razor-thin margins to continue operations, along with the workforce shortage.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.