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'It's win-win-win' | Maine child care workers get bonuses, job security through state and federally funded scholarship program

The T.E.A.C.H. scholarship covers 80 to 90% of tuition and book expenses, as well as a bonus for students who complete their contract.

SCARBOROUGH, Maine — Child care advocates in Maine believe a state and federally funded program could solve the workforce shortage that is preventing parents from enrolling their children in child care so the parents can go back to work.

The TEACH Program provides scholarships for people already working in licensed child care facilities to go back to school to get their associate's or bachelor's degrees in early childhood education.

The federal government pays up to 90% of the worker's tuition and book expenses. Their employer splits the remaining cost with the educator. In return, the educator agrees to work for their employer for a year following graduation.

The program has been around since the 1990s, but Maine joined it in July of 2020.

Emily Martin, a child care worker at Heidi's House in Scarborough, just found out three weeks ago she was accepted to the program.

"When I found out they were going to send me to school for almost free, it was a no-brainer," Martin said. "I wanted to finish school. I had that drive, but I didn't want to get buried in more debt."

Funding is $200,000 a year from federal Child Care and Development Block Grant funds that Maine DHHS allocated for this program. DHHS contracts with the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children to coordinate and oversee T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood Maine.

Workers get paid bonuses each year they keep pursuing their education, as well as paid time off for class and studying, called "release time," and a stipend for other expenses, plus a bonus structure for those who complete their contracts.

"That attracts people to the field, and that's what we need. That is the best carrot that we've seen ever," Heidi MacAllister McDonald, owner of Heidi's House, said. "It's win-win-win."

Child care facility owners are facing a workforce shortage, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and hope that this program could convince more people to enter the field.

"So you have to also know how many staff can you support at once where you can give them release time so they can attend classes and really be successful in earning their degree," said Tara Williams, executive director of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children.

Maine only has 26 slots in the scholarship program for staff across the state. 10 people are currently on the waitlist, William said.

"I need 25 slots. I have four or five employees who wanted it and didn't get it," McDonald said. "I'd like to see a lot more of that. That would be the best thing that could help us in terms of recruiting new people."

"Living paycheck to paycheck is not easy. Some of these bonuses will go into savings which is great. Saving for future houses, future kids of my own," said Martin. "It's important. I'm building personally and professionally."