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State Lawmaker, CEO Of Early Learning Nonprofit: Child Care Providers 'Need Help'

Child Care MDC North Campus Miami Herald.jpeg
Roberto Koltun/Miami Herald
Lucrecia Lopez plays with Sierra Dutcio, 16 months, and Joshua Wojtowicz, 15 months, at The Exploration Station on the Miami Dade College North Campus on in August 2017. Child care centers are struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the child care sector.

Child care providers throughout Florida are in crisis, facing declining enrollment, lost revenue and the threat of having to close their doors for good.

Reflected nationwide, this financial crisis is exacerbated here because of a technical glitch two years ago that led the Florida Department of Education to issue overpayments to providers — money that now has to be paid back.

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While child care centers are private businesses, some of them also receive public funding, both for administering state-funded Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten classes and for offering a federal program that helps kids from low-income families get ready for school.

Vance Aloupis recently spoke to WLRN about the challenges facing these businesses. Aloupis is CEO of The Children’s Movement of Florida, a nonprofit advocating for better education and health care for young kids, and a Republican member of the state House of Representatives — whose district includes a part of Miami-Dade County.

The following is an excerpt of the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity:

WLRN: The CARES Act, one of the federal stimulus bills during the pandemic, included more than $200 million for child care providers in Florida. The state has decided to keep about [$70 million] of that in reserve. And I understand your group is advocating for the state to distribute that money as soon as possible. Can you explain why?

VANCE ALOUPIS: The dollars that are coming in — we believe that those need to be pushed into the communities as quickly as possible, because what we're hearing from the providers is: 'We need help.' Their enrollment is down tremendously. At one point, in Miami-Dade County — which was a higher rate than elsewhere in the state — almost 80 percent of our child care was closed.

They still have to pay the rent for their space. They're still trying to pay their teachers. They still have to pay their insurance. They have to pay for the cleaning of the facility. So all of the expenses that come with running an early learning center remain. But the revenue has gone away, because the centers are now trying to operate on an enrollment that is, you know, 40, 50 percent less than what it was five or six months ago.

There’s another complicating factor for child care providers in Florida. Because of a data glitch at the state level in recent years, providers received overpayments and soon they'll have to pay that money back.

Yeah. So in 2018, the [Florida Department of Education’s] Office of Early Learning released a data system that, essentially, is supposed to be used to track attendance for our early learning system. And through the last year, because of glitches in that system, they were not able to get accurate numbers. So they were paying child care centers out based upon enrollment rather than attendance.

Now that the system is apparently working, they're going back and looking to see: Do the attendance numbers line up with the enrollment numbers? And because the enrollment numbers are significantly higher — because obviously, if a child misses five or six days, you're not going to be paid those five or six days, if it's based upon attendance — the state is now asking for those dollars back.

Now, my understanding is that they are going to defer the payments out until 2021. And that, rather than having to pay back dollars that some of these centers may not have, they may withhold payment. The department has agreed that they will not withhold more than 10 percent of a center's total revenue for a given month. But it could not come at a worse time. With every child care center really struggling day-by-day, for the state to now ask for dollars back is just another burden that they have to overcome.

So in addition to being a children's advocate, you're also a member of the state Legislature. What can lawmakers do to help child care providers survive?

The same challenges you're seeing in the K-12 space — they’re somewhat exacerbated in the early learning space because: Your 17-year-old may be able to stay home while you go to work. You can't leave your 3-year-old at home if you're called back to work. And people are going to need high-quality child care. There is a necessity for it.

So what I would be asking lawmakers to do now is, from a financial standpoint, making sure that the system has the dollars it needs to survive these next six months.

The legislative session for 2021 is not going to start until March. Do you think the Legislature should consider a special session to deal with these economic realities?

The financial issue, the funding issue, I believe is going to be a federal issue. The amount of money that the system is going to need to make its way through this pandemic — it is a multi-billion dollar investment.

As we move into 2021, and we move into the legislative session, I think we're going to have to have a serious conversation about the more structural challenges of early learning, the quality challenges. But I think the necessity right now is doing everything we can to advocate at the federal level to make sure those dollars are available.