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Officials: Meet demands on child care access

by MICHAEL BYNUM Special to the Democrat-Gazette | November 20, 2022 at 2:00 a.m.

In 2021, Little Rock voters struck down a referendum that would have provided $40 million over 10 years for child care in Little Rock. But it would be a mistake to believe that voters opposed the measure because they do not believe in the transformative impact of child care.

Rather, voters were presented with a plan that was big on commitments but short on details. Some were unwilling to finance a continuing obligation, and most demanded a plan with a clear road map for implementation within the text of the ballot proposal. It also failed because including child care in a "something for everyone" proposal did not garner the support some thought it would.

Nevertheless, the resulting public conversation about child care access was a symbolic victory for Little Rock. Voters challenged city officials to come back when they had a plan, which inspires optimism for the future. Little Rock officials should make expanding child care access a budget priority in 2023.

Antiquated policies treat child care as a supplemental perk or occasional early intervention tool that might break the cycle of poverty for a handful of children. These policies are incompatible with the 21st-century economy. The truth is that stalling education until kindergarten prevents many children from thriving.

A child's lifetime educational achievement can be predicted with surprising accuracy by their educational performance in third grade. LRSD superintendent Dr. Jermall Wright emphasized this correlation during his 2022 presentation to Rotary Club 99 of Little Rock. His data-driven analysis warned that children are beginning grade school without appropriate social and intellectual skills, and the effects reverberate well beyond graduation.

Spend time in a child care facility and you will see that education starts as early as six weeks old. Talk to the predominantly African American, female, underpaid, and overworked teachers that give enriching care and education. See their inspiring work as they prepare children for kindergarten.

My time as chairman of the board for the Gertrude Remmel Butler United Methodist Child Development Center (CDC) taught me child care is an essential service for a 21st-century economy. Employers are increasingly offering child care services as an employee benefit to attract top talent, while covid-19 made clear that economic activity halts when child care facilities close.

Your humanity and economic hopes for Little Rock will conclude increased child care access is worthwhile and attainable. With the right combination of people, partnerships, and policies, Little Rock can become a place where children thrive. I encourage voters and officials to consider the following proposals when working toward the future:

• Allocate one-time funds for child care facility expansion and consolidation. Child care facilities typically operate with low profit margins, meaning there are few resources available to re-invest in curriculum, teacher raises, or expansion. One-time grants for facility expansion or consolidation will reduce the wait lists and increase revenues. Build upon existing infrastructure. Target existing child care facilities for initial funding and avoid the trap of exorbitant startup costs and redundant programs.

• Establish a network of preferred child care providers for employers. Forward-thinking employers recognize child care is an essential prerequisite for a modern workforce. The recent groundbreaking for the UAMS Child Development Center is not just the beginning of an exciting chapter for UAMS. It is the future of child care as an employer-provided benefit; and while most employers will not opt for onsite child care services, employers of all sizes can see the benefit of being able to attract employees with high quality and accessible child care as part of their compensation packages.

• Local government can play a key role in establishing and supporting partnerships that will result in reserved classroom spots for employers and provide a continuous source of revenue for child care facilities, which in turn produces the resources needed to increase service quality. Facilities like the CDC regularly field inquiries from employers interested in forming strategic partnerships on behalf of their employees. The key is to match these employers with facilities that help them achieve their goals.

• Harness child care access as a catalyst for economic development, hunger relief, and workforce development. Like K-12 schools, child care facilities can serve as community hubs that provide a wide array of services. Child care transforms every aspect of a low-income family's life. Food- insecure children find relief from hunger. Parents have reliable and affordable child care that enables them to seek gainful employment. Child care enables people of all ages to live full and productive lives.

• Secure commitments from child care facilities to reserve a percentage of new classroom spots for low-income students. State child care vouchers for low-income families have undergone significant expansion since 2018, providing sustainable revenue streams for facilities and lifting low-income families out of poverty in both the near and long term.

For perspective, the CDC has approximately 150 voucher students on its waiting list, while as of the time of this writing there are no children on the state wait list for a voucher. Existing child care assistance programs can accommodate gradual increases in enrollment with proper coordination.

• Foster endowments through public-private partnerships. Gain trust with the public through competent administration of future child care programs. Sound the call to action and your corporate and other partners will answer (the recent fund-raising and development successes at Our House are proof of the possibilities). Little Rock voters will reward officials for results, not political ideology. Trust inspires action.

• Avoid the trap of thinking the current shortage of child care workers is an insurmountable barrier to success. Increasing the demand for teachers pushes wages upward for Little Rockers that are long overdue for a living wage. My experience is that the resulting raises can be funded with expanded enrollment capacity and fiscal discipline. The CDC implementing multiple raises and bonuses in the past two and a half years without a tuition increase is proof of this strategy's success.

The importance of child care was revealed to me during the height of the covid-19 pandemic. All staff and parents were required to be vaccinated against covid-19 weeks before similar policies were implemented by Fortune 500 companies. Parents and staff were in uncharted waters, but knew the CDC was central to our children's lives. The children and teachers were worth it.

To those skeptical of the benefits of expanded child care access or our ability to achieve it: I ask for your support with the humility of a father who will navigate uncertainty with you, and together we will share the light of faith to guide the way for our children's collective future.

Michael Bynum is a Little Rock resident, lawyer, and outgoing chairman of the board for the Gertrude Remmel Butler United Methodist Child Development Center in Little Rock.

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