Despite a desire for “long-term solutions,” the Press Herald editorial board in its Sept. 29 editorial, “Our View: Gov. Mills’ program a first step in reforming broken child care system,” admits that the $73 million in grants for child care businesses (funded 100 percent by D.C. deficit spending) is just a short-term fix. The money will eventually run out, again leaving parents scrambling to find affordable care and providers struggling to survive in a staggering economy and upside-down labor market.

So let’s talk long term. Since 2008, Maine has lost nearly one-quarter of licensed child care businesses. A third of providers in Androscoggin, Oxford and Washington counties closed their doors in that time. All but one county lost at least 40 percent of their family care providers, which are run out of operators’ homes, and seven counties lost at least half their family care providers.

Even though the supply of family care fell by half, center-based care licensees grew by 13 percent since 2008. Family child care is 38 percent cheaper on average than center-based care, so working Maine families are rapidly losing their most affordable options for more expensive alternatives. Overall care shortages raise prices on their own, but industry consolidation may also drive up prices.

Is the best solution to throw millions of federal tax dollars at the industry? It’s easy to see that more funding does not mean better results. Just look at state education spending vs. test scores over the last several decades. This should also give us pause amid any attempts to bring child care under the purview of the Maine Department of Education.

This industry is not failing of its own accord. Overbearing rules and regulations imposed by the state (in addition to a persistent labor shortage and an overall dreadful business climate) make it extremely difficult for a child care entrepreneur to maintain a profitable enterprise. State mandates and rules on child-to-provider ratios, insurance requirements and licensing of providers have unnecessarily driven up costs for caregivers and parents year over year.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that we can achieve a proper amount of regulation, especially for an industry that thousands of parents trust to take care of those who are most precious to them. But little doubt exists that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of top-down governance and away from facilitating a thriving marketplace.

Gov. Mills seems to understand this notion as well. In March 2020, during her state of emergency, she penned an executive order that allowed providers to watch three children before becoming licensed, with an additional child allowed if two were siblings. Today, unlicensed care providers may watch only two children at a time.

Following the governor’s order, several lawmakers last session submitted L.D. 1252, which would have made its changes permanent. This simply made sense. Maine already lags behind the nation: Thirty-six states (plus D.C.) allow unlicensed providers to watch more kids than Maine does. If the governor’s Democrat allies had not shot it down on a party-line vote, this bill would have provided some, albeit small, measure of relief to families still struggling to find affordable child care.

Instead, they passed L.D. 98, giving state regulators greater power to police the amorphous standard of program quality. This puts smaller care providers in an even tougher spot compared to their center-based competitors. While legislators knowingly or unknowingly push the industry toward consolidation, driving up costs and limiting options, we should remember the ones who truly pay the price: the working-class parents of Maine. In the oldest state in the nation, we should be doing all that we can to be an affordable place for these young families to put down roots.

Maine must do more to attract more child care entrepreneurs, but they need an environment that is friendly to their potential success. Instead of hoping for Washington to bail us out, lawmakers should take a scalpel (or maybe even a machete) to the rulebook next session and unleash the creativity of these dedicated caregivers.


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