Testimony of Ruqiyyah Anbar-Shaheen
DC Action Director of Early Childhood Policy and Programs
Performance Oversight Hearing - Fiscal Year 2021
Before the Committee of the Whole
Council of the District of Columbia
March 9, 2021
Good morning, Chairperson Mendelson and members of the DC Council. Thank you for the opportunity to address the Council as it reviews the OSSE’s performance. I am Ruqiyyah Anbar-Shaheen, Director of Early Childhood Policy and Programs for DC Action, member of Under 3 DC, and a proud DC resident.
At DC Action, we use research, data, and a racial equity lens to break down barriers that stand in the way of all kids reaching their full potential. Our collaborative advocacy initiatives bring the power of young people and all residents to raise their voices to create change. Through our Under 3 DC Coalition we organize families, educators, and communities. We are also the home of DC KIDS COUNT, an online resource that tracks key indicators of child and youth well-being.
Today my remarks will focus on OSSE’s efforts to support and strengthen the District’s early learning system. We are grateful for OSSE’s Division of Early Learning’s work to support child care programs during the public health emergency through adaptive policies and by working with the early learning community to use relief funds to respond to programs’ needs. Many of these policies and funding opportunities have likely meant the difference between staying in business and permanently closing for many programs. We also appreciate OSSE DEL’s efforts to improve communication with early learning programs during the pandemic through biweekly calls and attendance at community town halls and meetings. We hope to continue working with the agency to support better and more responsive communication with early learning programs across the District.
Early education is needed and undervalued
Early childhood is a busy time in a child’s development that can play a critical role in setting them up for success in later life. Quality early learning programs provide care that keeps children safe and supports family economic strength, and education that promotes healthy child development, school readiness, and other positive outcomes. Early learning programs play an essential role in maintaining city-wide systems of support for DC’s infants and toddlers, and often serve as the primary resource for identifying, implementing, and assessing developmentally appropriate goals and expectations for both the family and child.
Despite our deep understanding of the importance of high-quality education programming, early learning program availability vary drastically by neighborhood and income, further perpetuating long-standing social and economic inequality in the District. For our city’s Black and Latinx learners, these inequities begin early in life and are compounded by broken systems that do not work for their families. There are still families without access to quality care and teachers who don’t earn a living wage
Child care has been hard hit by the pandemic
DC’s child care sector needed support before the COVID-19 public health emergency reached the District. The pandemic’s impact intensified the strains on the early learning system, plunged child care programs into financial distress, and deepened existing barriers to the viability of the sector.
OSSE responded quickly to programs’ need to close for health and safety reasons and families’ reluctance to send their children to care by adjusting payments to reflect average payments between October and January 2019 to allow businesses to remain viable. However in November 2020, OSSE changed this policy and reverted to attendance-based payments, despite programs’ continued low attendance rates.
Eventually, the agency implemented an emergency payment rate to account for some of the difference between programs’ expected revenue and their COVID-19 impacted revenue. This increased OSSE’s per-child daily reimbursement rate by 32% to partially account for lower attendance and increased costs during COVD-19, and has been helpful and lightened the financial burden on programs. However, we know that this rate likely remains below the true change in costs due to the pandemic. Approximately 30% of child care programs remained closed as of January 31, 2021, and early learning programs not participating in the subsidy program face steep barriers to accessing needed revenue. OSSE must leverage unspent subsidy funds and new federal funds to address these gaps and sustain the early learning sector.
OSSE has several opportunities to leverage federal funding, including the CCDF state plan update and COVID relief funding, to stabilize child care and make major early learning systems improvements.
CCDF State Plan and Cost Estimation Model Update: The Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) funds a portion of DC’s subsidized child care programs. A state’s Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) State Plan dictates the use of these and some local funds. Every three years, states must submit an updated plan to the Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Child Care. As part of this state plan, OSSE has the opportunity to update its cost estimation model, which models reimbursement rates for early learning programs based on the cost of providing care. This is an important moment to reach out to DC’s early learning programs and experts to understand the strengths and gaps in the cost estimation model, and to make adjustments to the agency’s assumptions in calculating the cost of care. Some key areas for consideration include adjusting assumptions about early educators’ salaries to include a living wage based on the agency’s yet-unreleased workforce compensation study, addressing reimbursement inequities between different types of programs, and ensuring that rates cover the true cost of providing high-quality care.
Other opportunities to strengthen DC’s state plan include changing DC’s payment structure to reimburse programs by enrollment rather than attendance (see more below), transitioning from a voucher system to contracts or grants that incentivize participation in the subsidy program by providing a stable source of income, reducing family co-payments to minimize barriers to families, and other activities to increase the appeal of the subsidy program to programs.
$16.7 million in federal child care relief funds: Last month, OSSE was awarded $16.7 million in child care relief funds. In partnership with DC Action, the agency held listening sessions with early learning programs to understand what relief programs needed and how they needed it delivered using these limited federal funds. A clear theme arose from these listening sessions: programs needed grant funding to cover the increased early learning costs due to COVID-19. Programs also asked for centralized support for key COVID-related costs, such as cleaning supplies, PPE, and staffing. The financial cost of COVID-19 has been devastating for early learning programs and they still need relief. Last week, OSSE submitted its plan for using these funds to the Secretary for Health and Human Services. We look forward to seeing this plan and hope that it responds to the needs that programs shared with the agency.
American Rescue Plan funds: In the next few days, Congress is expected to pass a relief bill that will include $64 million in child care funds for DC. A portion of these funds - approximately $25 million - are relief funds and must be spent by the end of this fiscal year. The remaining amount - $40 million - is for expanded child care assistance. These funds are a tremendous opportunity to stabilize the child care sector and fill gaps in DC’s provision of relief to date. They are also a chance to make some important systemic improvements to address gaps highlighted by the pandemic and described in my testimony below. We urge OSSE to meaningfully engage early childhood policy and practice partners to quickly and responsively support the early learning sector with these funds.
Workforce challenges are more pronounced now than ever: higher pay and better educational opportunities are needed. In DC Action’s recent survey of child care programs, the majority of program directors reported that staffing challenges created barriers for their programs during the public health emergency. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, DC’s child care workforce has taken a significant blow. Programs report that a segment of early educators have left work to seek jobs with higher pay or to protect their families’ and their own health and safety. Programs have also experienced increased staff absences due to illness during the pandemic. A growing workforce shortage endangers programs’ ability to serve children and makes reopening to the District’s full licensed capacity an impossibility.
Many of the workforce challenges during the pandemic are symptoms of larger system failures, including many that OSSE has the power to address in the child care subsidy program. For example, the program currently reimburses programs based on assumption of very low wages (on average about $35,000 per year). These wages are lower than a livable wage in DC for early educators. Only lead teachers designated high quality earn a living wage, although it is the absolutely lowest possible wage considered liveable. For a sector providing such critical services, and already facing workforce shortages as OSSE simultaneously increases educator credential requirements, fair wages will be key to the viability of the sector and availability of child care for the families who rely on it. Birth-to-Three for All DC mandated that OSSE complete a compensation study to identify fair wages for early educators. This activity was funded in FY 2019 but the findings have yet to be released. Identifying and implementing fair wages for this workforce will be key to increasing the availability of early learning programs and families’ access to them, and increasing programs’ quality.
I want to emphasize that the intention of the District is to expand access to the DC child care program to a large portion of the families of young children in the District in the coming years through the Birth-to-Three for All DC law. Improvements to this program, therefore, are likely to positively impact families beyond those currently eligible as the law is implemented.
Reimbursing child care programs participating in the subsidy program based on enrollment, rather than attendance, is necessary to make the subsidy program more equitable and appealing to child care providers, and to stabilize programs. The child care subsidy program pays participating child care programs based on child attendance, while most program costs are incurred based on child enrollment. Under this approach, subsidized child care programs’ revenue depends on factors outside of their control - whether a parent chooses to bring a child to care on a given day - and reduces the stability of these programs. Programs that accept parent pay for child care charge tuition that does not fluctuate based on a child’s attendance. This is an important business practice that accounts for the fact that programs incur costs even when a child is absent. The most significant cost drivers in a child care program’s budget are staffing, rent or mortgage, and office and administration, factors that are unaffected by a child’s absence. OSSE’s subsidy payment approach - withholding payment for occasional absences - inequitably penalizes and harms programs serving children in families with low incomes.
OSSE should build on its practices during the public health emergency to establish enrollment-based payments. The timing is right: incoming federal funds and the timing of CCDF state planning are an opportunity to build this approach into DC’s child care subsidy program. During the pandemic, OSSE wisely increased the number of allowable unexcused absences before funds were withheld. While this played an important role in reducing the burden of increased absences on programs’ already suffering revenue during the pandemic, long-term permanent changes are needed to promote equity and strengthen the viability of programs caring for and educating children who face barriers due to economic marginalization and racism. To truly cover the cost of caring for children in families with low incomes, stabilize the incomes of child care programs participating in subsidy, and to make the child care subsidy program more appealing (and therefore reach more families with low incomes), DC must reimburse early learning programs based on their program’s enrollment.