These cities raised taxes — for child care. Parents say the free day care ‘changed my life’

By ARIEL GILREATH of The Hechinger Report

NEW ORLEANS — Last summer, Derrika Richard felt stuck. She didn’t have enough money to afford child care for her three youngest children, ages 1, 2 and 3. Yet the demands of caring for them on a daily basis made it impossible for Richard, a hairstylist, to work. One child care assistance program rejected her because she wasn’t working enough. It felt like an unsolvable quandary: Without care, she couldn’t work. And without work, she couldn’t afford care.

But Richard’s life changed in the fall, when, thanks to a new city-funded program for low-income families called City Seats, she enrolled the three children at Clara’s Little Lambs, a child care center in the Westbank neighborhood of New Orleans. For the first time, she’s earning enough to pay her bills and afford online classes.

“It actually paved the way for me to go to school,” Richard said one morning this spring, after walking the three children to their classrooms. City Seats, she said, “changed my life.”

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This series on how the child care crisis affects working parents — with a focus on solutions — is produced by the Education Reporting Collaborative, a coalition of eight newsrooms, including The Hechinger Report, AL.com, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, Idaho Education News, The Post & Courier, and The Seattle Times.

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Last year, New Orleans added more than 1,000 child care seats for low-income families after voters approved a historic property tax increase in 2022. The referendum raised the budget of the program seven-fold — from $3 million to $21 million a year for 20 years. Because Louisiana’s early childhood fund matches money raised locally for child care, the city gets an additional $21 million to help families find care.

New Orleans is part of a growing trend of communities passing ballot measures to expand access to child care. In Whatcom County, Washington, a property tax increase added $10 million for child care and children’s mental health to the county’s annual budget. A marijuana sales tax approved last year by voters in Anchorage, Alaska, will generate more than $5 million for early childhood programs.

The state of Texas has taken a somewhat different tack. In November, voters approved a state constitutional amendment that allows tax relief for qualifying child care providers. Under this provision, cities and counties can choose to exempt a child care center from paying all or some of its property taxes. Dallas was among the first city-and-county combo in Texas to provide the tax break.

The recent local initiatives are focused on younger children — infants and toddlers — more than ever before, said Diane Girouard, a senior state policy analyst with Child Care Aware, a nonprofit research and advocacy group.

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“In the past, we saw more of these local or state-driven initiatives focusing on pre-K, but over the last three years, we’ve seen voters approve ballot measures to invest in child care and early learning,” she said.

One reason: People saw the economic impact of a lack of child care during the pandemic, said Olivia Allen, a co-founder of the nonprofit Children’s Funding Project.

“The value of child care and other parts of the care economy became abundantly clear to a lot of business leaders in a painful way,” Allen said.

For some Americans, the child care crisis has continued, keeping them from being able to hold down jobs and advance in their careers. The number of parents who reported missing work because of child care surged in 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak; it has yet to recede to pre-pandemic levels. In Louisiana, 27% of households with kids under age 5 reported a child care disruption in February or March, according to Census Household Pulse Survey data analyzed by the Associated Press in partnership with the Education Reporting Collaborative.

In New Orleans, a city with many in the service industry and other low-wage jobs, the City Seats funding has been transformative for parents struggling to hold down demanding, mostly non-unionized jobs. The program has also been a boon for the child care centers themselves.

Richard had struggled off and on to find affordable child care since dropping out of college when she gave birth to her oldest son, now 12. That’s even though she immediately put her name down for a spot at child care centers when she discovered she was pregnant. “Literally, when you see the ‘positive’ line, you fill out an application,” she said of taking a pregnancy test.

Now that she can think about building a career again, Richard has set her sights on finishing her college degree. Her dream is to have a career in forensics.

Another parent, Mike Gavion, who has two children enrolled at Early Partners in the Garden District, said City Seats allowed his wife to finish school and get a nursing job. Before the program was available, Gavion’s wife had to care for the children, now 2 and 4, and could only make slow progress through the coursework she needed to qualify for a job.

“It really gave us an opportunity,” Gavion said. “If we had to pay for two kids, I don’t think she would have been able to do nursing school.”

Families in New Orleans qualify for City Seats if they have children from newborn to age 3 and earn within 200% of the federal poverty level. But many don’t immediately get a spot: As of April, City Seats had 821 students on its waitlist, according to Agenda for Children, the nonprofit that administers the program.

About 70% of the City Seats budget pays for children to attend centers ranked as high quality on the state’s rating system. The rest of the budget goes to improving quality: Child care providers have access to a team that includes a speech pathologist, a pediatrician and social workers.

Participating providers are required to pay their staff at least $15 an hour — on average, Louisiana child care workers made $9.77 an hour in 2020 — and abide by strict teacher-to-child ratios and class sizes. They also receive professional development from early learning experts.

Funding from City Seats has allowed Wilcox Academy’s three centers in the city’s North Broad, Central City and Uptown neighborhoods to raise average staff pay to $18 an hour. The Academy’s goal is to raise it even higher — to $25 an hour.

“Teachers deserve it,” said Rochelle Wilcox, the Academy’s founder and director. “They deserve to go on vacation, they deserve to buy a home, they deserve to buy a car. … This is not a luxury.” ___

Valeria Olivares of The Dallas Morning News and Sharon Lurye of The Associated Press contributed reporting. ___

The Associated Press’ education coverage receives financial support from multiple private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP’s standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and funded coverage areas at AP.org.

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