Child care gets a boost with new Michigan budget, but structural problems remain

Mother places mask on child’s face before preschool during the coronavirus pandemic
A child gets help putting on a mask to prepare for a day at Crystal Swann Learning Center, a child care center in Detroit, in June 2020. (Courtesy Felicia Legardy)

Michigan’s new budget extends lifelines to working parents who have struggled during the pandemic to find care for their children — including school-aged children — and to child care providers whose businesses are at risk of closing.

Advocates noted that the new funds come amid widespread budget cuts due to the coronavirus pandemic, and said they were encouraged by the move to help stabilize existing child care programs while offering services to more families.

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” said Erica Willard, executive director of the Michigan Association for the Education of Young Children.

The additional funding amounts to a stop-gap measure, not the overhaul of the child care system that many advocates say was badly needed even before the pandemic, Willard added. Providers have long argued that state payments are unreliable and too small to adequately pay their staff. Teachers of young children make so little money that their own children often qualify for state child care subsidies. And child care offerings in working class cities like Detroit often don’t come close to meeting parent demand.

Those issues have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and the new budget includes several measures that expand child care access while helping providers weather plummeting enrollment. 

The state had refused to pay for child care for K-12 students who are learning online, forcing some low-income parents to choose between going to work and caring for their children, Chalkbeat reported this week.

The new budget offers a solution, setting aside $18 million in federal relief funds that will allow providers to support school-aged children during the virtual school day.

That’s welcome news to parents like Princess Bradley, who was forced to pull her three children out of child care last week and take days off work because the state wouldn’t cover their tuition.

“It’s definitely relieving that I know that my kids will actually be safe and cared for while I’m working, and I’ll still be able to provide for my family,” she said.

Still, the new funds won’t be available until Oct. 1, and Bradley asked why the funds weren’t in place before the start of the school year.

“It should have already been on the table,” she said. 

The money for K-12 students could also help child care providers keep their doors open. Many are struggling financially during the pandemic as enrollment craters.

“It means that we’ll at least be able to cover the overhead,” said Monique Snyder, owner of Brainiacs Clubhouse, who lost a dozen school-aged students, including Bradley’s children, when the state said it wouldn’t pay their subsidies. “We’ll be able to bring kids back. With this avenue at least we’ll be able to serve the community and prevent kids from being left at home.”

State officials said that 14,000 children are eligible to receive the subsidy, but noted that the state will only pay for their care if they don’t have the option of returning to school in person. That means students won’t be eligible if they attend the Detroit Public Schools Community District, which is offering in-person learning. However, the district is providing space for students to learn online during the day while their parents work.

Denise Smith, implementation director of Hope Starts Here, a Detroit-based philanthropic child care initiative, said the state shouldn’t deny child care to school-aged children just because their parents don’t want them to attend in-person classes: “Parents should be given a choice.”

Some providers said the new funding doesn’t go nearly far enough. The budget allows centers to bill the state for an additional 60 hours when children are absent — a major issue during the pandemic — those extra hours will soon be used up, said Nina Hodge, a board member of the advocacy group Providers for Change and the owner of Above and Beyond Learning Center.

“We’re going to be through with those hours in probably five months,” she said, noting that flu season could worsen the absenteeism already caused by the pandemic.

Child care measures included in the new budget:

  • $26 million to expand access to child care for families by increasing the income eligibility from 130% to 150% of the federal poverty level.
  • $18 million to reimburse child care providers who care for low-income K-12 students whose schools only offered full-time virtual or hybrid learning this fall.
  • Roughly $80 million in grants to child care centers, allowing providers to bill for an additional 60 hours while subsidized students are absent, a recognition that many students are attending less frequently because of the pandemic. Grant details have not been ironed out yet.
  • The Great Start Readiness Program for 4-year-olds from low-income families can now be conducted online, and income eligibility for the program is increased to help ensure classrooms are full.
  • Child care workers are included in the state’s Futures for Frontlines program, which will provide free community college to people who continued in-person work this spring.
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