Child care aid: Colorado lawmakers want more parents to get it — and more providers to accept it

A young student kneels on a mat playing with multicolored toys
Colorado's child care subsidy program is underutilized even as many parents in the state struggle to pay for child care. (Erin Kirkland for Chalkbeat)

Colorado helps about 17,000 lower-income families pay for child care each year through its child care subsidy program. That’s only a fraction of the families eligible for assistance, and yet there are millions of dollars left on the table every year.

Theresa Ramirez, a single mother in Fort Collins, can attest to one reason why. Although she submitted her annual renewal paperwork early, a lag in getting it processed forced her to quit working for weeks after her baby’s subsidy was canceled.

Now, lawmakers are considering a bill that would overhaul the program, making it easier for families to access, boosting aid for some families, and making it more attractive for providers who accept subsidies. The bill would also cover full tuition for child care employees with kids in child care regardless of family income — a major benefit given the industry’s chronically low wages.

House Bill 24-1223, sponsored by three Denver area Democrats, will be heard in the House Health and Human Services Committee on March 12.

The proposed improvements to Colorado’s subsidy program — officially called the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program or CCCAP — come at a time when many families are struggling with the cost of living and some child care providers are raising tuition to cover their expanding costs. While lawmakers and advocates say it’s high time for fixes that allow more families to get subsidies and entice more child care providers to accept them, one of the bill’s co-sponsors said the price tag could be large. State legislative staff have not yet released the bill’s fiscal note, a detailed analysis of how much it will cost.

Kyle Piccola, vice president of communications and advocacy at Healthier Colorado, said he’s pleased the state is taking a “big holistic approach” to the child care subsidy bill.

“It’s a program that definitely needs improvement,” he said.

Rep. Lorena Garcia, a co-sponsor of the bill, said she’s encountered no opposition to the spirit of the bill, but acknowledged the cost could be a stumbling block for some lawmakers.

“I’m confident we’ll get it to a place where we’ll get it done,” she said.

Colorado’s $156 million child care subsidy program is funded by the federal government, the state, and counties. It’s available to homeless families as well as lower-income families in which parents are working, looking for work, or going to school. Most families who qualify for subsidies still pay a portion of child care costs in the form of a co-pay.

Several advocates and providers interviewed said the subsidy application, which is different in every county, can be invasive and intimidating. That can lead parents to skip it even if they need the help.

Nearly two-thirds of the state’s 64 counties use less than 75% of their subsidy dollars annually and this year, the program is on track to have up to $7 million in leftover funding, according to the Colorado Department of Early Childhood.

“It’s underutilized,” Garcia said.

More aid for families and incentives for child care providers

The bill would make a number of changes required by newly released federal rules aimed at reducing the cost of child care and some changes that are Colorado specific. Key provisions of the bill include:

  • Limiting parent co-pays to no more than 7% of family income, down from the current cap of 14%.
  • Creating a uniform statewide application that doesn’t ask for extraneous information, such as custody agreements or child immunization records.
  • Allowing families to get or continue receiving child care aid for 90 days while their application or renewal paperwork is being reviewed, a provision that will help parents start working immediately and keep children in care.
  • Paying child care providers who accept subsidies based on the number of subsidized children enrolled, not on the number of days those children attend. Currently, providers can lose money for days the child is absent above the number allowed by their county.
  • Making child care employees eligible for full subsidies regardless of their family income.

Overall, the bill aims to better serve families that currently receive subsidies, attract new ones, and incentivize more child care providers to accept subsidies.

This year, nearly 26,000 Colorado children get subsidized care through the program, only about 11% of eligible children, according to estimates from Healthier Colorado. Just over 2,000 child care providers accept state subsidies, fewer than half of the state’s providers.

What parents and providers are saying

Ramirez, who lives with her four children in Fort Collins, described CCCAP subsidies as a lifeline that allowed her to work starting when her youngest child, 13-month-old Sarai, was six weeks old.

Ramirez brings home about $1,300 a month from her work cleaning houses. Her co-pay is $4 a month at The Family Center/La Familia, a family resource center that runs a highly rated child care program in the northern Colorado city. Her daughter loves it there, she said.

But when Ramirez lost her subsidy for a few weeks after her renewal application stalled, she had no choice but to bring Sarai home and decline all cleaning jobs. It’s the kind of wrinkle the subsidy bill could help fix.

Under the bill, such cancellations would be averted by giving families what’s called “presumptive eligibility,” essentially a 90-day grace period in which subsidies would start or continue while officials review applications or renewals.

Ramirez said anything in the bill that streamlines and strengthens the application and renewal process will make a difference for families like hers.

Corinne Bernhardt, executive director of Young Peoples Learning Center in Fort Collins, said the plan to give full subsidies to employees will help about a quarter of her 25 staff members. It will also make it easier to hire new employees amid industry-wide labor shortages.

The center’s current staff discount for child care isn’t always enough to get qualified candidates with young children in the door, she said.

“To have to say, ‘Well, we can give you a 50%-off discount, but it’s still going to cost you $1,500 a month to bring your kid here, but we’re only going to pay you $17 an hour,’ a lot of people are like, ‘OK, I guess I’m just going to stay home,’” she said.

Bernhardt said she also likes the provision requiring that providers be reimbursed based on enrollment instead of attendance because it will reduce administrative hassles for her staff.

Overall, she believes by making much needed improvements to the state’s subsidy program, the bill will help Colorado’s economy.

“Parents can’t go into the workforce, if they can’t find child care,” she said.

Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues. Contact Ann at aschimke@chalkbeat.org.

The Latest

One is participating in an intensive apprenticeship program at Bloomberg and the other dashed off 23 college applications.

Turnout was characteristically low — below 3%.

The CEO of The Learning Source, which provides adult education at locations across the state, said thousands of Colorado adults will lose out.

El índice de solicitudes completas de FAFSA ha disminuido y las ofertas de ayuda financiera están en un limbo. Los orientadores universitarios quieren que las familias sepan que no están solas.

Century-old Humes was operated as a charter under the state’s unraveling Achievement School District.

Schools are supposed to give parents of students in temporary housing free MetroCards each month. But problems with distributing them are leading to absences and fare evasion tickets.