Opinion: We’ve tumbled over a child care cliff

Child care programs, like the one I run, are at risk of closing.

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

It’s rare that we can make a direct connection between what Congress does and our lives, but this is one of those times. On Oct. 1, our country tumbled over a child care cliff. It’s having a direct impact on the child care program I run, the families it serves and communities in every part of the country.

In recent years, we’ve helped multiple children who are neurodivergent, which means their brains naturally work differently than those of many kids. Understaffed and under-resourced, other preschools often can’t meet their needs.

I founded The Sammy Center, a unique and nurturing nonprofit preschool in Salt Lake City, for kids like these. Having worked in early childhood for 25 years, I knew a mental health crisis was on the rise among our youngest children. I wanted to build a responsive program focused on social-emotional development in which all children, neurodivergent and neurotypical, could get the support they needed to thrive.

Many of the parents we serve come to us in tears. They are worried for their children, and scared that, without adequate child care, they’ll lose their jobs.

“I promise,” I tell them, “no matter what happens, we will support your child.”

I’m happy to say that many of the children we work with who are neurodivergent have thrived in our center. They know they are loved, seen, heard and safe here. Instead of lashing out when they need support or attention, they learn to gently tap on my or my colleagues’ shoulders and patiently wait for a response — the kind of transformation that can reshape a child’s education and his life.

Every day, because of the amazing children we see every day, I see the power of early childhood education to transform futures. But I worry about whether we will be able to keep our doors open. After all, early childhood programs operate on razor-thin margins in the best of circumstances. Add a pandemic, and it’s no wonder thousands of child care programs have closed.

The child care stabilization funds in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) have been a lifeline for programs like mine. But now that our ARPA grant is ending, the child care cliff has arrived, and we have to raise our rate by 30% to keep the doors open.

Even before the $300/month increase, a third of our students could only attend because grandparents pitched in for tuition. Sure enough, since announcing the hike, I’ve lost four students because their families can no longer afford our program.

The increase puts tuition far beyond parents’ budget. I’ve seen some of our families face an impossible choice: One parent must leave their job — drastically cutting their family’s income and stalling their career — or they must enroll their child in a program not equipped to meet their needs.

That’s if they can find a spot at all, of course. The country had a severe child care shortage before COVID. Now, researchers estimate an additional 3.2 million spots will disappear in the coming months if Congress doesn’t act.

I’ve learned not to tell parents, “I promise.”

I want to provide quality, affordable care. But I also want to pay my teachers, who are nothing short of saints. No one at the Sammy Center is making a living wage, despite several having master’s degrees. After a long day of supporting children, many with behavioral challenges, my teachers rush to restaurant jobs so they can make ends meet. I have a second job at a crisis line.

It’s demoralizing. At child care programs, we change lives. We teach toddlers the social skills and emotional regulation they need. We enable parents to work and our economy to function.

That’s more important than ever. In all the years I’ve been doing this work, I’ve never seen the scale of social-emotional challenges we’re experiencing now. Early childhood providers are frontline responders in the mental health crisis many of our youngest learners, born into a raging pandemic, are experiencing.

Congress holds their futures in its hands. Congress will decide whether early learning programs get the resources to help students recover and thrive, or whether we’ll allow thousands more programs to close and let children who need our services fall through the cracks.

Personally, I reject cynicism. I believe this funding cliff can be a turning point in the fight for a better future for our children. I know in my heart we can build a robust early childhood sector so that children, families and our economy can succeed. I will keep speaking out until we do.

Maria Soter

Maria Soter is founder of The Sammy Center and a member of MomsRising. She lives in Salt Lake City.

The Salt Lake Tribune is committed to creating a space where Utahns can share ideas, perspectives and solutions that move our state forward. We rely on your contributions to do this. Find out how to share your opinion here, and email us at voices@sltrib.com.