Should Maryland loan working moms money for childcare?

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

A Democratic candidate for governor has proposed a novel way to help mothers of young children stay in the workforce: Loan them the cash to pay for quality childcare.

Entrepreneur and author Alec Ross has made the plan a platform of his candidacy, and he said the state should consider paying for child care an economic investment in working families — both to help parents boost their future earning power and, for children, to limit the economic inequality that starts at birth.

“We have a moral obligation as a society to do all we can to ensure that every child gets the same quality of care at a young age, regardless of the family income,” Ross said. “That investment pays dividends for the whole economy.”

Early childhood education is a staple campaign platform of Democratic candidates. Democrat Anthony G. Brown, for instance, promised in 2014 in his failed bid for governor to deliver universal pre-kindergarten if elected. Several studies have shown most students who are behind when they reach elementary school never close the gap, and that for every $1 invested in early childhood education, there’s as much as $7 in economic activity generated in return.

But Ross’ $55-million-a-year plan doesn’t just subsidize pre-school, though it would do that for poorer families. It would also provide a stream of money for middle-class families to defray the expense of childcare starting at birth, and parents would pay back a small percentage of their income until the child graduates high school, regardless of how much they earn.

The campaign promise comes as Ross seeks to distinguish himself in a crowded field of Democratic candidates running to take on incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan next year in a state where Democrats outnumber GOP voters two to one. Ross is one of four declared candidates in the primary race; another four have said they’re considering a run.

“What I'm proposing is for government to play an assertive role in childcare in a way that it hasn't before,” Ross said. “Childcare is one of the most important and least discussed issues in government, and it's because working moms don't really have a lobby.”

Several states trying to ease the burden of student debt are experimenting with a similar model that approaches college education as investment. Rather than saddle college freshmen with debt, these “income-sharing agreements” promise to pay for college expenses in exchange for a set percentage of the student’s future income for a set period of time, regardless of how much they earn.

Ross likened the expense of quality childcare to that of college tuition. In Maryland, he said, the average in-state tuition is roughly $10,000 a year, less than the roughly $14,000 it costs a year to send a 1-year-old to a quality day care center. He argues that if there are scholarship and financing options to defray the cost of college, they should exist for childcare, too.

Ross’ plan would spend roughly $35 million a year on a voucher program for families that make less 50 percent of the state’s median income. And he would spend another $20 million on the income-sharing agreement that would help families making $85,000 or less pay for child care.

Ross also expects private investors to help fund the program, which he expects to make money when families repay a portion of their incomes. Ross did not have actuarial data to support the idea that such a program would pay for itself, but pointed to the initial success of college tuition programs at places like Purdue University.

Ross is the only candidate in the nascent Democratic race to pitch specific policy programs. He faces Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, former NAACP chief Benjamin T. Jealous, and Baltimore lawyer James Shea. State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno has said he plans to announce his candidacy later this summer.

Rep. John Delaney, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, and former Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler have said they’re also considering the race.

ecox@baltsun.com

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