Benefits of quality child care and early childhood education have been clear for years.
Early learning “is one of the best investments our country can make,” the National Education Association proclaims on its website. A 2017 National Library of Medicine study says educational programs for children younger than 5 lead to several positive outcomes, including better academic preparedness, decreased likelihood of repeating a grade, higher chances of high school graduation and, potentially, higher earnings after high school.
The Indiana Family and Social Services Administration – administrator of the state's Paths to Quality rating system for early childhood programs – boasts that “High quality child care programs are essential, not only to Hoosier children, but also to their families and to the communities in which they live. Parents need stable, high quality care in order to be productive at work.”
Those feelings haven't always been reflected by Indiana leaders guiding education policy, so it was welcome this week when the Family and Social Services Administration announced the creation of a $540 million grant program aimed at keeping child care locations open and access to early learning facilities available. The money comes from the federal American Relief Plan Act, which passed without the support of Indiana's Republican representatives in Congress.
Build, Learn, Grow stabilization grants of up to $500,000 will be given to child care and early education providers under the program.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been extremely challenging to the early education industry, as providers have worked to remain open to safely serve children, while many families have chosen to keep children at home or with family which impacts providers' revenue,” said Nicole Norvell, director of the administration's Office of Early Childhood and Out-of-School Learning in a statement outlining the program Wednesday. “In addition to enrollment challenges, providers continue to grapple with increased supply and material costs as well as staffing shortages.”
That is “critical to our whole state's recovery, allowing families to work and businesses and communities to thrive,” she said.
Providers across the U.S. saw enrollment drops leading to scaled-back operations – or closures – as parents opted not to send their children amid COVID-19 concerns. In Indiana, child care programs numbered 4,218 in March 2020, according to the state Early Learning Advisory Committee. By June 2021, there were 3,928.
More than 40 closed because of the pandemic, data show. At least three in northeast Indiana cited COVID-19 as a reason for closing.
Build, Learn, Grow grants can be used to pay workers, recruit and retain staff, for rent, and for “mental health supports” such as counseling for children and employees. Grant amounts are calculated based on the types of programs offered, attendance, cost of staffing, quality level and location.
Stabilization grants complement Build, Learn, Grow scholarships, which pay up to 80% of the cost of child care and education for essential workers.
Then-Gov. Mike Pence in 2014 pulled Indiana's application for $80 million in federal funding for preschool education over whether children of undocumented people should be allowed early-learning opportunities. A state preschool program was launched, but first only as a pilot program in Allen and four other counties. It since has expanded, but convincing lawmakers to fund it has remained problematic.
We hope Indiana will expand funding for early childhood education. Until then the federal stabilization grant money is a welcome and crucial component to child care and early learning.
Applications for Build, Learn, Grow stabilization grants must be received by Dec. 30 and are available at stabilization.buildlearngrow.org