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'Just the start,' | Higher quality, more affordable, increased slots in Maine's childcare facilities targeted in new law

LD 1712 uses hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state funding to replicate an Early Head Start model that a childcare facility in Somerset Co used.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A new law targets childcare in Maine with the goal of increasing access and improving quality of education.

Senate President Troy Jackson (D - Allagash) sponsored LD 1712, An Act To Support Children's Healthy Development and School Success. Governor Janet Mills signed it into law on Monday. 

The law will use hundreds of millions of federal and state dollars combined to allow childcare facilities to offer more openings for students in existing child care programs through the First 4 ME program administered by the Department of Health and Human Services. It will also provide coaching to interested childcare agencies to promote better outcomes for kids.

The new law will replicate a program in Somerset County, modeled after the successful Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership. Maine plans to create five additional programs across the state. Coalitions of stakeholders, providers and other community members will sponsor the those additional programs.

Tracye Fortin with Educare Maine and the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program says this law is really aimed at rural areas where there are not a ton of options.

"Right now, we know that there's a childcare desert. There are not enough high-quality, accessible, affordable locations for families to select the childcare that they want," Fortin said.

In Maine, there are two main models of childcare facilities: one is a childcare center, that resembles a traditional classroom. The other is called a "family child care home," which is daycare that takes place in someone's home.

The Mills Administration also put forward the Child Care Plan for Maine that uses about $120 million in dedicated child care American Rescue Plan funds, on top of $50 million in previous COVID-19 pandemic relief. Maine is expected to receive an additional nearly $120 million in Federal funds through the American Rescue Plan for child care.

Combined with another estimated $8.4 million Maine expects to receive through an increase in Federal block grant funding, the funds total nearly $130 million that Maine will use to improve childcare in the state.

"We can't just create slots and say we're done. We have to pay people who are doing this incredibly important work commensurate with what we think of it is as being essential or valuable," said Senator Jackson. "What we've done here is just the start. I don't see this at all as if we've solved it. We need to do more than this, too."

Fortin said the money allows the people who run these facilities to:

- make physical improvements like renovations. For example, one family added a downstairs toddler-sized bathroom for students.

- hire more employees so the facilities can accept more students.

- bring in coaches to the child care facilities to help the staff learn better ways of teaching, and screening kids for all kinds of developmental and educational milestones.

"What are those things that can make a really big difference in supervision of children, ease, health and safety?" said Fortin. "All of those independent small family childcare homes, etc. They are their own business, so we are supporting their business development, so that's part of workforce sustainment and that helps the broader economy because families can work because they have more options of quality locations to send their children."

The money also helps families who meet a low-income threshold pay for childcare. The state will send money to facilities so  facilities can offer childcare to those low-income families at a discounted rate.