Katie Martinez: Utah’s children, families and educators need more support

Without Child Care Stabilization Grant funds, many child care centers in our state and across the country will be forced to close their doors.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Children participate in an activity at a daycare in Provo, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022.

I have worked in early childhood education for more than 25 years, working as a director of a child care center for 10 years. I couldn’t have picked a more rewarding career. There aren’t many other jobs where you can walk into the room and have everyone cheering and clapping for you.

Over the years, I have observed and experienced the growing child care crisis. The field of child care has been in crisis for a long time, but it was magnified through the COVID-19 pandemic as centers struggled to remain operating due to financial hardship and teachers leaving the field. Thankfully, Child Care Stabilization Grant funds were made available through federal COVID relief funds, which helped by offsetting the cost of child care services for parents, while increasing pay rates for teachers.

Both are crucial for centers to remain open. However, these grants will soon end for providers. Without these funds, many child care centers in our state and across the country will be forced to close their doors, causing families who rely on these providers to have to search elsewhere for care or quit their jobs. With centers closing, it will become increasingly more difficult for families to find care for their children.

For centers to remain in business without stabilization grant funds, we are forced to pass the cost on to parents by increasing the cost of tuition. This has already begun and, as providers, we struggle with raising tuition for parents because we know that they can’t afford it. Infant rates alone are close to a mortgage payment for many and when you add multiple children, tuition is much more than a mortgage payment for most.

There is the option for child care assistance. But for those who make too much, there is no support. For those who do receive child care assistance, tuition costs are beginning to surpass the amount the state subsidy payments will cover, meaning they now have to pay more out of pocket. Many of the families that qualify for assistance are single-family homes that can barely make ends meet, and now they have the added burden of another expense. Parents simply can’t afford the rising costs of child care.

As a provider, I struggle to raise our rates because I care about the families I serve. I know that most providers agree. We never want to add additional burdens to anyone. However, if we want to remain open to support families, we have to.

Another dilemma we face is the inability to pay teachers what they truly deserve. Teachers in child care make on average between $12 to $18 per hour, that’s less than some fast food workers. Yet the work that teachers do in child care is invaluable. They do so much more than most people realize, and they are definitely not just “babysitters’' despite some public opinion.

They are the first teachers children have outside their homes. They support young children in meeting major milestones such as sitting, crawling, walking and running and other milestones in between. They change diapers, feed and comfort children. They prepare children for future schooling and teach them invaluable life skills that will support them throughout their lives.

The biggest reason my center has raised our rates, and continues to raise rates, is to be able to pay our teachers higher wages. Even with tuition increases, teachers still do not make livable wages and we are still unable to give adequate pay raises that are deserved. This results in many teachers leaving the field.

My center recently received a high-quality rating through Utah’s Child Care Quality System (CCQS). We have worked so hard to achieve this rating and were able to maintain great staff during the process because of the stabilization grant. Now, with these funds going away, we are forced to cut back on support staff and risk burning teachers out by having to max out classroom ratios with minimal staff.

This is not how you run a quality classroom and provide the care that children and families deserve. Not to mention, child care teachers don’t deserve that either.

This is the reality of most centers. In an already struggling field, we cannot do this to our teachers. We cannot do this to our children and we cannot do this to working families. If we want to remain in business to continue serving the families that we support, we need more support.

Katie Martinez

Katie Martinez is the director of Kid’s First Center.