A bill requiring the state to conduct an annual workforce study of early childhood professionals and help the pool of workers earn more unanimously passed the House Education Committee.
House Bill 377, sponsored by Sherae’a Moore, D-Middletown, would have the Department of Education do the annual study, with the first due by Nov. 15, 2022, along with a plan to implement supports that could include loan forgiveness, salary supplements and scholarships for additional training that would help workers earn more.
The bill focuses on a hot topic in the business world right now.
Patrick Harker, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, told the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce in April that the lack of available child care is slowing economic growth and personal prosperity because workers can’t find and can’t afford child care. The state chamber this week held a webinar focused on finding solutions, and the Fed, The Rodel Foundation and others participated.
They said many workers, women in particular, have not returned to the work force because of the lack of childcare at a time when businesses desperately want more workers.
Care for one child costs about 20% of a family’s budget, webinar speakers said. The annual cost for childcare in Sussex County is about $21,000, other industry watchers have said, partly because there are remarkably fewer providers.
Already, a bipartisan group of legislators and several nonprofits are pushing the state to change the way it reimburses childcare centers when the center’s families qualify for state assistance because they are low wage earners.
Right now, New Castle County centers are reimbursed at a higher rate than Kent and Sussex, industry watchers and participants have said.
Moore’s bill summary said the child care workforce problem was laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most child care workers earn low wages, she said in introducing the bill. and without quality and consistent early childhood care, primary caregivers are less likely to return to the workforce.
Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, applauded the bill and said she would add her name as a co-sponsor. The lack of child care is especially hard on small businesses, she said.
Briggs King also said she was sorry to saddle the Department of Education with yet another annual report, but it was an important issue.
One representative asked Moore to be sure that organizers shouldn’t forget the workers already in place in favor of attracting new workers.
“We are looking to keep the individuals that are currently here and also seek opportunities to make the industry look more attractive to others,” she said.
Delaware Rep. Sean Matthews, D-Claymont, asked Moore to consider adding home-based child care to the bill. She said she would consider adding that in an amendment.
Rep. Rich Collins, R-Millsboro, said he was going to vote for the bill, but also was going to throw a few flies into the ointment. He pointed out that many children never go to child care, but stay with family members.
He stayed home with family and didn’t start school until first grade, he said.
“You can tell that’s probably why I’ve turned out the way I have,” he said.
His wife kept two of their grandchildren, he said.
“I do worry that we are putting everyone a little at a time into the state government framework,” he said. “I just hope that somehow as we do these things, we can figure out a way to keep the family there and the influence of the family in and not become totally institutionalized from a very, very early age.”
Several people testified in person or on the phone in favor of the bill.
Jamie Schneider, president of the Delaware Association for the Education of Young Children and owner of the Educational Enrichment Center in Wilmington, pointed out that the state requires changes in child care center procedures every year with little to no support for the cost of the changes.
An annual report and a plan would help with recruitment and retention of workers, as well as inform decisions made by the state and help childcare providers meet multiple sets of standards designed to align early childcare with education standards, she said.
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience, including 15 at The News Journal in Delaware.
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