Federal Grant Helps Low-Income Families Get Child Care
A federal grant reauthorized last month has the potential to help more Southwest Florida families access subsidized child care.
Backed by all but four members of Congress, the $5 billion Child Care Development Block Grant provides financial assistance to help pay for the cost of child care while parents are employed or are in school. The grant, which hadn’t been updated since 1996, was reauthorized and signed into law by President Obama on Nov. 19.
The block grant is divvied up among the states’ existing child-care assistance programs. Here in Florida, that program is called the School Readiness Program, which subsidizes child care for at-risk families and those whose income falls below 150 percent of the federal poverty level. Residents of Lee, Hendry, Glades and Collier counties apply to the state program through the Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida.
Susan Block, the CEO of the Coalition, said the updated grant will help families get — and keep — affordable child care.
Before, families could lose their child care if their household income increased or a parent took a break in school. Now, families who qualify for public assistance are guaranteed access to child care for the next 12 months.
“That can be terrible for children, for them to get pulled in and out of different child care facilities. Now they can stay at the same place for a whole year. That’s big. That’s really big,” Block said.
Block said the number of children getting help fluctuates and couldn’t give an accurate figure, but it’s in the thousands.
Nicki Preston, who runs Preston Family Day Care in east Fort Myers, has witnessed many parents lose their eligibility for financial assistance to pay for child care.
“I have had more than one parent come to me and they’re in tears, and I tell them, ‘we have to figure something out,'” Preston said. “So when (Block) called me and said this grant was available, we can actually help parents that are really doing their best for their children.”
Samiya Boston, 4, a student at the Preston Family Learning Center in Fort Myers, listens to her teacher, Laureen Preston, while working on a project.(Photo: Andrew West/The News-Press)
The average cost of child care for an infant in Florida is nearly $8,300 a year, according to 2014 data collected by Child Care Aware of America.
Alisa Florence, 47, found herself relying on the School Readiness Program when she took custody of her four young grandsons. She said the assistance has allowed her to keep her job at Sandy Park Development Center.
“It’s hard to even try to take care of them, let alone afford child care,” Florence said. “Without the funding, I would definitely be lost.”
The block grant will also require comprehensive background checks on child-care employees, more stringent facility inspections, and a streamlined rating system for child care centers.
“Parents won’t have that fear of dropping their children off to just any place,” Preston said of the rating system provision. “It ensures children will be in a safe environment.”
While child-care advocates celebrated the grant’s new measures, they acknowledged that its budget does not match the overwhelming need.
“While there has been a small increase to the grant, the cost of child care increases every year,” said Hannah Matthews, the director of child care and early education for the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, D.C. “Right now, we’re only serving one out of every six children who are eligible (for assistance).”
The grant served about 99,000 children in Florida in 2010, according to CLASP data.
Block said there is always a waiting list of families who hope to gain services through the School Readiness Program in the Southwest Florida region. Sometimes there are as few as 500. Right now, there are 3,500.
“And the true number is probably even more,” Block said.
She hoped someday the grant’s funding could increase and that the public will understand the “tremendous ripple effect” that early learning can have on a community.
“For every dollar we put into programs that are good quality, we save money. We don’t have children that are ending up on the streets, in gangs, selling drugs. We want to building a really good foundation for our children.”
Early learning programs in Florida
There are two main early-learning programs: voluntary prekindergarten and the School Readiness Program, both of which are regulated by the state department of education’s Office of Early Learning.
•VPK is a free program for all 4-year-old children who live in Florida. There are no other eligibility requirements. Parents can choose from public or private providers and are ability to choose instructional schedules that best fit their schedules.
•The School Readiness Program is a subsidized child-care program available for children ages one through three. The program has three eligibility requirements: Parents must be working or attending college for at least 20 hours per week, the family’s household income must be at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level for family size and the family must pay a co-payment for child care based on income.
To apply for either program, visit: www.spe.schoolreadiness.org/pe/