The Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE)’s Division of Early Childhood (DEC) has administrative oversight for all the major programs for children birth through Kindergarten entry, including the state funded preschool program, child care, and federal Preschool Development Grant Birth to Five (PDG B-5). We recently talked with Steven Hicks, Assistant State Superintendent, Division of Early Childhood, and Jennifer Nizer, Director of Office of Child Care, Division of Early Childhood about their initial plans for the use of federal funds to stabilize and bring back stronger the early care and education system in Maryland following the impact of the pandemic.
How is your state trying to use the various strands of American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds to strengthen an equitable system of early care and education (integrating both child care and preschool, from birth through Kindergarten entry)?
Steven noted his Division staff are focused right now on the $500 million in federal child care stabilization grants. This is an extraordinary amount of money as a state agency to get out to programs and obligate in two years. State government processes to disburse funds (e.g. procurement) are typically not set up for this short time line, so for the $300M for child care stabilization we created a very streamlined application for providers to access the funds. Steven said, “Our goal is get at least half of the funds directly to programs by the end December 2021 and to make it as easy as possible to stabilize programs to meet operational costs and address under-enrollment that may have resulted from the capacity restrictions and limited family involvement in child care due to the safety measures we put in place during COVID.”
For the $192 M in 2021 Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA) funds Maryland is prioritizing three big buckets:
- Providing financial support to parents with the cost of child care by providing relief for parents by, for example, reducing or waiving copays.
- Investments to help the early care and education workforce directly, and this includes all staff supporting children in programs.
- The third area is improving quality, including mental health services, professional learning, coaching, and shared services.
Steven has not had a lot of involvement in the development of MSDE’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) state plan, due June 7, 2021 to the U.S. Department of Education. However, the state is planning to set up mental health support teams that will address the needs of all children preschool – Grade 12, and DEC has been part of the cross-divisional team. There is an opportunity for the federal ARP Act funding to build on the state-funded Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation Project with the additional Child Care Development Fund (CCDF) discretionary dollars from the SARP Act. Steven noted that since 90% of the federal ESSER funds will flow to Maryland’s 24 county-based school districts—and that’s where decisions will be made as to how federal dollars are spent locally – MSDE is working to make equitable investments across the state. While not every county is prioritizing early childhood, the state has some good examples of leveraging federal resources to stabilize and expand child care, such as Howard County, which matched federal and state dollar with local dollars to give family child care providers a 15K bonus. In Montgomery County, they have a county funded early care and education scholarship program that supplements the state program.
What strategies have worked well in engaging stakeholders to determine priorities in your state?
Steven noted that Maryland has a structure of local early childhood advisory councils in the 24 counties in the state. These entities are charged with engaging with families, providers, community resources and businesses to address the needs of young children. We plan to meet with the councils, key stakeholder groups, and providers in the coming weeks to get their input into their needs and suggestions for federal relief dollars. They can also serve as technical assistance providers for child care programs as they complete their grant applications.
How is Maryland using federal and state dollars to address unique challenges of early education and care?
Steven and Jennifer talked about three key issues among many they are trying to address:
Pre-k and Kindergarten under-enrollment. Steven noted we are trying to break out of the “school year” mentality, to address the needs of families and children for care and education year round. Maryland is funding programs for 12 months now because of the funds we received to expand PreK to 3 and 4 year olds from families with incomes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level and will use federal ARP funds to support professional development for staff and administrators and increased family engagement.
Strengthening family child care. Steven said, “We place a special focus on strengthening family child care (FCC) so our parents have diverse choices of high-quality settings.” Maryland already provides a range of supports to FCC to improve quality and support a sustainable business model. Recently they established a workgroup of representatives from the two main family child care associations in Maryland to discuss the future of family child care in Maryland.
Early Childhood Educator Compensation Parity. Steven noted that Maryland passed a major overhaul of their education system, Birth-12, in December 2020. The Blueprint for MD’s Future invests a tremendous amount of money in early care and education programs, including requiring comparable salaries across all sectors of care and education in the state PreK program. In Maryland, PreK teachers are required to have a bachelor’s degree and a P-3 teaching credential, so Maryland is developing new strategies to ensure that child care educators are not left out of the system, including infant and toddler teachers. The state has funded the development of an online Bachelor’s program and an alternate P-3 certificate that is free for child care teachers participating in the Credentialing program.
What do you need to support your efforts?
Maryland recently released a bold and innovative strategic plan for early care and education birth through age 8. It is an ever-green document to guide the state for the next five years and will be revised as needed with the input of various state groups and feedback from peers and national experts.