County Council President Hans Riemer introduced a new bill Tuesday that he pitched as an incremental step toward providing early childhood education and affordable quality child care to all Montgomery County children.
The bill calls for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services to create the “Ready to Learn Initiative” to create child care subsidies for families that earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. At the current level, a family of four would qualify for subsidies if it earned less than $49,200 per year while a family of six would qualify if it earned less than $65,920.
“The idea is you want to be able to create access for every child in the community to quality affordable care,” Riemer said during a weekly press briefing Monday, before introducing the bill during Tuesday’s council session. “However, there’s only enough resources to go around, so we need to focus on kids who don’t get quality care.”
He said the initial idea is to focus on child care for 4-year-olds—the age before most children enter kindergarten.
“When kids are coming into kindergarten ready to learn, that’s going to pay off for every family in the community because the classroom as a whole will work better when more kids are on a level playing field,” Riemer said.
He said he did not know how many children may be eligible for the program or how much it could cost to implement.
On Tuesday there was no discussion among the council members about the bill after Riemer introduced it.
Any licensed child care provider would be eligible to receive subsidies if the program is established, Riemer said. The amount the child care provider receives in subsidies would be based on the provider’s “Maryland EXCELS” ranking, which reviews and provides ratings of child care providers based on the quality of the programs they offer.
Riemer said it could take several years for the council to be able to appropriate enough funds to subsidize the early childhood education of all county children who could be eligible for the initiative.
“My hope would be we could get there over a couple of years,” Riemer said.
He said the council will receive additional cost estimates and more information about how many students are eligible for the program as the bill works its way through the county’s legislative process.
For at least the past two years, the council has been examining ways to provide additional early childhood education and affordable quality child care to residents.
The county provides some subsidies to low-income families through the Working Parents Assistance Program and the state also provides subsidies through its Maryland Child Care Subsidy Program. Those programs provide subsidies for child care for families in which both parents are working. A 2016 county study found that about 400 children under age 12 received monthly subsidies through the county program and about 1,375 received state subsidies—although about 18,000 children were eligible for the program.
Riemer and council member Tom Hucker previously examined the possibility of imposing a tax on sugary beverages to raise funds to pay for early childhood education programs in the county. However, the idea wasn’t generally supported by other council members.
On Tuesday, council member Nancy Navarro asked the Health and Human Services Director Uma Ahluwalia to put forth a comprehensive strategy the council can pursue to increase early childhood education in the county. She asked that the strategy include options for current child care providers and county schools to participate.
“I feel like we do have resources and assets, but we have to sign on to a specific strategy,” Navarro said.
Ahluwalia said in response the department built a strategic plan at the request of the council and is also working on responses to questions from council members it plans to complete by the end of the month. She, however, admitted that the work is progressing “slower” than the council would like.
“I absolutely acknowledge that,” Ahluwalia said.
Navarro responded that she would like a full council presentation scheduled to provide an update on the department’s work. Riemer said he would schedule a full council discussion to provide an update on the work to implement greater access to pre-kindergarten and early education.