Making ends meet

State childcare program loses providers and children as deadline looms

PHOTO: Getty Images

Despite a looming deadline that could deprive thousands of young children of day care, Illinois has made scant progress on ensuring providers attend safety training required to keep their state subsidies.

This is according to new numbers obtained by Chalkbeat through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The providers could lose their paychecks, and children of low-income working families who rely on the program could be displaced, if caregivers don’t record their trainings within 90 days or if the state doesn’t revise its requirements.

According to data, only 1 in 3 providers who make up the majority of the state-subsidized child care program have met the new safety requirements, despite a Sept. 30 deadline that came and went. This group — known as friend, family, and neighbor care — accounts for 70 percent of all subsidized caregivers in Cook County. They are paid $16 a day by the state.

The trainings list includes CPR, first aid, a protocol for reporting suspected abuse, and a series on health and safety skills. The lessons originally were proposed to span 56 hours. The program has since been winnowed down to eight, with only four hours required by Sept. 30.

Despite those changes, early childhood advocates and the union that represents the providers have called the requirements and the state’s haphazard communication about them overly burdensome, especially for older caregivers who have never used a computer and for rural providers who live dozens of miles from the nearest CPR training site.

Critics said the state’s shifting deadlines and complicated reporting system have cause confusion among caregivers and that participation is declining.

“These are very bad and very punitive requirements,” said Brynn Seibert, the director of the child care and early learning division of SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana, the union that represents some of the providers.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services, which administers the program, said that her agency is not trying to be punitive, but rather is attempting to raise standards for all publicly funded providers as required by a 2014 federal law.

“We’ve tried to make training available as many places as possible, and at as many times as possible,” said Meghan Powers. “These are people paid through state dollars, and we think they should have the same type of training requirements as someone who is paid privately.”

Dan Harris, the executive director of the Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, which maintains the state’s credentialing system and designs the trainings, said his organization is partnering with local agencies and the state human services department to “arrive at a resolution that maintains the integrity of the system” and doesn’t threaten the care of children across the state.

Lori Longueville, who runs a referral agency that serves the state’s southernmost counties, said it’s time to step back and evaluate “if the path we are on is really right.”

“We need to be open to making changes.”

A program under stress

Not even established daycare center directors have fully embraced the training. According to the data obtained by Chalkbeat through a Freedom of Information Act request, only about 40 percent of licensed centers that receive the subsidy have completed the entire training regimen, and about 20 percent of staff at license-exempt centers — those typically operating in churches, for example — so far have met the requirements.

The training snafu puts stress on a program that already has been losing providers and children. After Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration changed eligibility requirements in 2015, the number of children served dropped by 31 percent. As of August, the state was serving about 122,600 children monthly.

The Rauner administration ultimately reversed its changes. But advocates are concerned that the program is still contracting. Cook County-based Illinois Action for Children, the state’s largest referral agency, said that 2,362 children, or 15 percent, of children have dropped out of its subsidized family and neighbor care program in the past 12 months.

The number of participating caregivers in that program has dropped 12 percent, too, over a similar timeframe.

“This drop represents an ongoing trend that began 2½ years ago,” said Maria Whelan, the group’s executive director.

This doesn’t even account for the impact of the new training requirements or their enforcement, Whelan added.  

More than half of Illinois children are in the care of family, friends, or neighbors — a trend that’s observed across the country, according to a new report from Child Care Aware of America. The report, which was released this week, said that only 1 in 6 children nationwide who are eligible for a subsidy actually receives one, which raises serious questions about hurdles families face trying to find affordable, quality care. Illinois is one of the least affordable states for child care in the report. 

Dionne Dobbins, a lead researcher on the report, said that anemic reimbursement rates, compliance issues, mandatory trainings, and overregulation threaten programs in several states, not just Illinois.

“Throughout the country, we see providers not being able to keep their businesses open, and they are going under,” said Dobbins.

Other pressure points

Illinois providers will soon encounter another hurdle. The state notified providers in an August letter that it will be sending out independent monitors to conduct safety visits. The letter did not spell out inspection criteria or a deadline.

Whelan, of Illinois Action for Children, said that safety visits are a good idea in theory, but they are a huge undertaking that should be approached thoughtfully. Some family providers — such as a grandmother caring for her grandchildren — could be reluctant to let someone into their homes.

“Improving quality for children in all settings matters a great deal and so does creating approaches for holding providers accountable,” Whelan said. But, she added, “what we do not want to see happen is punitive monitoring protocols.”

A monitoring program built on strong relationships between agencies and providers could help link more families with formal preschool programs or other critical services, such as food pantries or doctors. However, if mishandled and providers are sanctioned or scared off, agencies risk losing an important connection to some of the state’s most vulnerable families.

Depending on the outcome of the Nov. 6 gubernatorial race, the whole scenario could change. The winner will oversee how the state enforces the training requirements, and perhaps whether it will cut off caregivers.That’s because federal law establishes that training and monitoring must happen, but states decide many of the particulars — including who is required to complete it.  

ready for prime time

Four ways Amazon’s arrival in New York City could impact public schools

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
John Schoettler, Amazon's vice president of global real estate and facilities, (left) sits with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio at a press conference about Amazon's announcement to open part of its new headquarters in Long Island City.

After months of speculation, Amazon announced Tuesday that it picked Long Island City for one of its two new headquarters.

Details about the new Queens hub are still emerging, and some of the particulars are already raising eyebrows — including billions in incentives Amazon was offered to locate here. The deal, which officials claim will create as many as 40,000 jobs over 10 to 15 years, will undoubtedly affect New York City’s public school system.

The formal agreement between Amazon and New York City lays out several direct ways that the deal could impact city schools. The company agreed to house a 600-seat intermediate school on or near its Long Island City campus, replacing a school that had already been planned in a residential building nearby. Amazon also plans to offer “career exploration activities” and internship opportunities to high school students. And there is a proposal to relocate some Department of Education offices in Long Island City to make way for the tech giant.

If Amazon’s impact on Seattle, its primary headquarters, is any guide, there could be reverberations felt in New York City classrooms, especially those districts in or adjacent to Long Island City. Still, given New York City’s size and economy, Amazon’s arrival may not create the same sweeping changes — and officials are already trying to reassure New Yorkers.

“The city and state are working closely together to make sure Amazon’s expansion is planned smartly, and to ensure this fast growing neighborhood has the transportation, schools, and infrastructure it needs,” de Blasio said in an Amazon blog post announcing the move.

Here are four potential issues to look out for.

Overcrowded schools

Amazon has pledged to donate space for a new middle school — space that parents say is desperately needed. De Blasio said Tuesday that the school will replace another that had been proposed for the area. “There is no loss of school seats,” he said.

But Meghan Cirrito, a member of the Gantry Parent Association, an education advocacy group in Long Island City, is skeptical that the school will ease the crunch for classrooms. Queens parents have long fought for more school space in the borough. In the Long Island City neighborhood, schools that serve grades K-8 are already at 102 percent capacity.

“It will absolutely not relieve the overcrowding. They will keep up with their own development,” she said. “We’re already behind school seats.”

Deborah Alexander, the co-president of Community Education Council 30, which includes Long Island City, echoed that the school plan feels like “a pittance.”

“We’re still playing catch up for the city’s lack of infrastructure in Long Island City,” she said.

The need for more classrooms could also have consequences for de Blasio’s push to make pre-K available to all the city’s 3-year-olds, an effort the city is rolling out slowly in part because of existing space constraints.

But even if thousands of students arrive with new Amazon employees, they will still represent only a drop in the bucket of the city’s 1.1 million public school students. De Blasio cautioned at Tuesday’s press conference that while some employees will live in the neighborhood, not all will move to Long Island City and some may commute from other areas. Still, the neighborhoods around Queens are some of the most crowded school districts in the city.

Concerns about the city’s record student homelessness

Seattle has struggled to address a surge in homelessness as home prices have soared more rapidly in the city than anywhere else in the country — an increase that many have attributed to its booming tech sector.

As the number of high-earners there has shot up, so has student homelessness, which has increased threefold between 2011 and 2017. But when the city tried to pass a new tax dedicated to boosting services for the homeless, Amazon led a campaign against the measure, which eventually died.

Amazon is promising to pay an average salary of $150,000 in New York City. In the school district that will host the tech giant’s new hub, about 72 percent of students come from low-income families.

In New York City, the number of homeless students is already at an all-time high. More than 114,000 students here lack permanent housing, which poses challenges for schools that may struggle to meet the needs of children who often lag behind their peers on academic measures.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza recently announced the education department would hire 100 new employees to help schools with high concentrations of homeless students.  

De Blasio said the arrival of large companies such as Amazon could exacerbate homelessness in other cities that “don’t have substantial affordable housing, are not building a lot of new affordable housing,” specifically calling out San Francisco.

But, he said, the impact of tax revenue from Amazon’s move will be “central” for supporting existing affordable housing in New York City.

Other changes in student demographics

School leaders in Seattle say the number of students who are learning English as a new language has jumped with Amazon’s growth, opening the need for teachers and curriculum to serve those students.

New York City has rapidly expanded its language programs under de Blasio, which are often seen as a tool to help spur more diverse schools. But the education department has also historically struggled to serve English language learners well.

Amazon’s move could have other effects on school diversity at a time when advocates have put increasing pressure on the the city to step up integration efforts. New York City schools are among the most segregated in the country, an issue that Carranza has pledged to tackle.

But with more higher-income families potentially lured to Queens by Amazon jobs, Cirrito worries about gentrification in a borough and neighborhood known for its diversity, and the effect that could have on classrooms.

“How can we say we welcome new Americans here if they can’t afford to live in Long Island City and they can’t afford to live in neighborhoods where their kids have good schools?” she asked. “At the time we have a chancellor in place calling for the desegregation of schools, this seems to be a move that will completely undermine his efforts.”

Even if low-income families live side-by-side with Amazon’s workers, it’s not at all clear their children will learn together. Long Island City is home to the New York’s largest housing project, and whether high-earners would opt into schools where many students are poor is an open question.

A philanthropic boost?

New York’s agreement with Amazon doesn’t offer many details about how the company will interact with the nation’s largest school system, but it does include a promise to create internships and “work-based learning opportunities” — including activities such as career days and mock interviews.

What that will look like, and whether a bigger stream of philanthropic support could follow, is unclear. Amazon has offered some support for public education in Seattle, including supplies for needy students. And its founder, Jeff Bezos, recently announced a $2 billion investment to launch a network of preschools in low-income communities.

Kathryn Wylde, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for New York City, which serves as the business community’s lobbying group, said she hopes Amazon’s presence helps fuel career and technical programs in city schools.

“The frustration has been a lack of employer engagement in opportunity for [career and technical education] and workplace opportunities,” Wylde said. “Obviously this is a bonanza in providing those opportunities.”

She added that Amazon could support schools similar to Brooklyn’s P-Tech, a high school that partners with IBM to offer students opportunities in the tech sector. (Wylde said there were no concrete plans in place yet for Amazon to participate in such a partnership.)

Others were less optimistic.

Alexander, the co-president of Community Education Council 30, said she hopes the city would partner “as much as possible” to harness any investments Amazon is willing to make in public schools.

Still, she added, “It sticks a little in my craw —  the richest person in the world getting billions of dollars in money from New York State when New York State owes schools so much money.”

“It’s hard to see what internship or guest speakers or whatever could make that balance.”

Chalkbeat live

Education for all? Let’s talk about that, Chicago.

Since Chalkbeat Chicago launched in June, we’ve convened small gatherings of parents, educators, school council members, and community leaders to talk about city schools.

On December 12, we’re hosting our biggest public forum to date — with pie! — on the topic of Chicago’s next mayor and the future of schools in the city.

  • Which items should top the next mayor’s schools agenda?
  • How do we build on successes like the district’s record-high graduation rates?
  • And how do we grapple with persistent challenges such as declining enrollment and equity gaps in performance and resources?

We are inviting educators, students, advocates, policy makers, and more to join us for this critical conversation. Taking part in the centerpiece panel will be Chicagoans with experience in and around schools including:

  • Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, founder of the Little Village Community Development Corporation and newly elected congressman from the 4th District
  • Elizabeth Swanson, vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel
  • Daniel Anello, CEO of Kids First, which produced a new report that examines school access and capacity on the city’s South and West sides
  • Jitu Brown, national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance

Guests will be encouraged to record a message to the city’s next mayor in our storybooth and to network with other people who care about public education and Chicago youth. The evening also will feature student performances and a coffee-and-pie reception with treats from Justice of the Pies and Dark Matter Coffee.

The event is free and open to all ages, but space is limited and registration is required. RSVP here.