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Samantha Lawson, of Mount Airy, had been working in the child-care industry for eight years when, in 2012, she learned was pregnant with twins. It should have been a wholly happy occasion, but Lawson was immediately faced with a quandary: How would she continue to work full time and pay her rent when the cost of child care seemed out of reach?

Lawson's work offered her a 10 percent discount for her twins once they turned 2, but she said she would still be paying more than $3,000 a month at that point. Her monthly income was $1,960 before taxes.

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"It's ridiculous, especially for a single mother making ends meet. I applied to try and receive day-care vouchers and was denied because 'I make too much money,' " Lawson said. "For the first nine months of the twins' lives, my best friend watched them for $100 a week. ... I was broke, even with paying the small amount she charged me."

By late 2013, Lawson had decided that it simply wasn't worth it to continue working in child care when she couldn't afford care for her own children. She had previously obtained her 90 hour preschool certification and had hoped to continue her education and career.

"I decided it was smarter for me to leave my job and become a stay-at-home mom," she said. "I've been struggling to make ends meet working a part-time night job cleaning because I can't afford to use my education."

Lawson's experience is hardly unique in Carroll County.

Rachel Cole, of Taneytown, had to cut her hours working as a nurse back to part time because the $880 a month she was paying for child care for her two children for three days a week was simply too much.

"For me working as a nurse full time, that was a little over half my paycheck, and my mortgage is about $1,300," she said. "After a mortgage and baby-sitting, I would have probably gone home with a few hundred dollars and still had a car payment and groceries."

On the whole, the cost of child care in Carroll County, and the entire state, is wallet punishing. The Maryland Family Network released its 2015 Child Care Demographics report in March and found that the average cost of child care for preschool age children in Carroll County is $10,079 per year, and for infants it is $9,212 per year.

By comparison, the cost of a year's tuition at Towson University for a Maryland student is $8,590, according to the school's website.

According to Maryland Family Network Executive Director Margaret Williams, the child-care status quo is not sustainable, for financial and educational reasons. Where day care was once seen as just another form of baby-sitting, she said that a new appreciation for how important early childhood education really is has lead to increased demands that child-care providers do more to educate their wards, which may further increase costs.

"We are at a very important crossroads in our culture because on the one hand we have to come to grips with the fact that early childhood development is very important, it builds the foundation the rest of the person's life, ... and at the same time we have no system that works well to support the cost of quality care," she said. "Parents of low-income children are usually young and at the beginning of their careers. Child care is one of their biggest expenses, and they do not have a lot of disposable income. It is a real conundrum in all parts of this country."

If child-care costs are too high and going higher, it's logical to look at child-care providers to see if they are charging an exorbitant amount to parents who have few choices. But the data from the Child Care Demographics report indicate that providers are feeling the pinch as well: The average salary for a child-care center aide in Maryland is $17,442, and the average for a senior staff member or teacher is $25,770. By comparison, the average salary of a public school teacher in Carroll County is $56,670.

The numbers are even tighter for family child-care providers, who work out of their home.

The average Maryland home child-care provider earns $32,287, according to the report, but this figure is complicated by the fact that such providers must pay a lot of overhead to meet training and safety requirements, and even the cost of snacks that add up over the course of the year.

Shannon Haines has been a home child-care provider in Westminster for the past three years, and is licensed to care for eight children and a parent herself.

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"I know the challenges parents are facing financially but then I don't think parents always understand what it takes to operate an at-home day care," she said. "I feed them a snack, a lunch and breakfast. Then I have toys and a curriculum that we do. And the toys, they have to stay well maintained as well: I can't have a broken toy that they could hurt themselves on. My house must meet all the safety regulations."

Haines never really leaves her job, because it's at home, and she can never let her house become messy or fall into disrepair because it is also her place of business. Unlike a day-care center employee, the cost of home maintenance, electricity and insurance all eat into her income.

"I charge $35 per day for an over 2-year-old, so over 9 to 10 hours, depending on who is here, that is not a lot of money," she said. "It's not like I pocket the whole week's tuition."

What concerns Haines the most is that new Maryland State Department of Education regulations on family child-care providers — from more extensive and expensive training to requirements on how infants and toddlers are arranged in the day-care space — could make it impossible for her and other providers to stay in business.

"It's making some of us providers ask, is it worth it?" Haines said. "I spend a fortune on my day care; my tax man was angry at me this year. I am in the red a lot because I put a lot into it."

The Maryland Family Network works with family child-care providers to provide training, assistance and advocacy. According to Williams, the burden faced is a very real one. Providers are asked to take on additional training, but many do not have the time or funds to complete such training, potentially leading to their exit from the industry.

"How do we get these hardworking child-care providers who have families of their own so that they have the training of a first-grade teacher. ... We need to help them do that. They can't do it on their own," she said. "Our data show that the family child-care providers numbers are going down all across the state."

Maryland is not currently equipped to deal with a sudden drop in the number of daytime child-care providers, according to Williams. If the state were to lose a substantial number of those providers, Williams said, it would create a "terrible crisis" for parents, children and the providers left to handle the demand.

According to the Child Care Demographics report, there are 182 licensed family child-care providers in Carroll County with a capacity to care for more than 1,300 children. Even with these and the more than 80 licensed group programs and more than 40 eight-to-12-hour child-care centers in the county, many parents already find it difficult to find a provider that meets their needs.

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When Heather Hart and her husband moved to Carroll County, they spent months looking for day-care options that could take her toddler and newborn, and opened earlier than 8 a.m., a necessity so that she and her husband could make it to work each morning.

"There were only two places that were going to have openings," she said. "We used to live in Baltimore County, and there it is like there is a day-care center on every corner and up here it's like, 'There are only two to chose from? You have to be kidding me!' "

Hart eventually found a family child-care provider for $180 a week using the Maryland Family Network's website, which offers a child care locating service for parents.

"For us it's perfect. I got really lucky," she said. "I'm going to dread when we have to change because they start school."

Lack of access to affordable child care makes it difficult for adults to start their careers, can delay the development of low-income children, and many providers are struggling to continue doing business. It's a set of problems that demands an answer, and Williams has one: Fund it.

First, the MSDE currently has a Child Care Subsidy program for low-income families that, according to Williams, provides some families with subsidies of up to 15 percent of the market rate for child care. She said the Maryland Family Network would like to see that program expanded to accept more families and funded so as to subsidize qualifying families up to 75 percent of the market rate for child care.

Second, Williams would like to see universally available prekindergarten for 4-year-olds.

"That would mean any 4-year-old could get it and that would be in what we call the diverse delivery system, which means you can get public pre-K in school or in a child-care program in the community," she said. "We are looking at a diverse system that meets the needs of the family and the parents. Not an elementary school for little kids."

Williams acknowledged that the state budget is tight, but said that when it comes to public investments, early childhood education is one of the best expenditures the public can make, citing the work of University of Chicago economist James Heckman.

"For every $1 invested, about $7 of public money is returned," she said. "That is because children that get a good start in life: They graduate on time; they don't need special education services; they go on to higher education or vocation training; they get jobs, they buy houses; they pay taxes; and they raise children."

Not everyone agrees that more public funding is the best way forward, even as they recognize the problem faced by parents and child-care providers.

Maryland state Sen. Justin Ready, R-District 5, said that while he is willing to entertain any good idea for making child care more affordable, he is suspicious of public funding programs that might increase taxes.

"Certainly we all care about making sure our kids at the youngest ages have an opportunity to learn and be safe, but at the same time, taxpayers can't be asked to foot the bill for every single good idea that there is," he said. "My biggest priority as an elected official is trying to bring the cost living down for everyone. ... Taxes are part of that, but there are also regulations that make it hard to find good-paying jobs."

Ready said the fact that family child-care providers are regulated by multiple agencies, from MSDE to the fire marshal, is cumbersome for providers and that some rules, such as limiting the number children younger than 2 whom a provider can care for, are well intentioned, but could be more flexible in some cases.

"I am working with some home-child-care providers about some concerns about regulations," he said. "If we make it too hard for home-day-care people, that limits choice and competition."

Ready said he is also interested in an option for Marylanders to deduct the cost of child care from their state taxes in the same way they can on their federal tax returns.

Even some parents who have been forced to quit their careers due to the cost of child care are suspicious of a publicly funded child-care system.

Jessica Shockney, of Westminster, said that she decided to quit a good career in the hospitality industry to stay home with her two children while her husband works as a full-time firefighter because of child-care costs. At the same time, as a libertarian, she was opposed to the increased taxes and government involvement that universal pre-K or a voucher system would entail.

"Private day care, although costly, is still more cost effective than a government program would be for all of us in the long run," Shockney said. "The ideal solution would be for private businesses to be more supportive of families and offer day-care benefits. While this would not solve the issue entirely, it would create less demand for day care and in return possible lower prices for everyone."

Even Cole, who said she thought a voucher system was a good idea said she was concerned about how it would work in practice.

"Where is that money going to come from?" she asked. "Are taxes going to go up?"

In Westminster, the owner of The Little People's Place Child Development Center, Mary Burke, believes she may have found a different solution that tackles parent cost and provider wages.

"Pay your staff the most you can, charge your parents the least you can, give the children the best you can, and then just hang in there," She said. "If you apply for a job at Little People's Place, you must have a four-year degree and the starting salary is $20 per hour. I want to get highly educated people."

The way Burke does it, she said, is volume: a volume made possible by an early adoption of the educational possibilities of preschool environments. By creating her own curriculum, Burke said she was able to become licensed as a private school in addition to being a licensed day-care center — allowing her to increase the maximum allowed child to staff ratio from 10 to 1, as it is in most day-care centers, to 12 to 1.

"Those two extra kids allowed me to pay higher salaries. … Plus, because my tuition is lowest, we're always full."

According to the Little People's Place Website, full day preschool for 3 to 4-year-olds is $205 for five days per week.

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Even though she has found a market-based solution to cost and provider wages that other providers have not, Burke said she would be supportive of a public voucher system for preschool. She said it's the type of program that could seem strange initially, but could quickly grow to be universally accepted.

"I've been in child care for 40 years," she said. "When I started, kindergarten wasn't in the schools, and then it was half day. Now it is full day."

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