Community

A coalition of local and state representatives along with local nonprofits are pushing Louisville leaders to use federal COVID-19 relief to expand access to early childhood education.

The coalition recently sent a letter to Mayor Greg Fischer asking him to invest $20 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) funds into various initiatives aimed at increasing the number of child care providers and workers. 

District 8 Metro Council Member Cassie Chambers Armstrong, a Democrat, was one of the representatives who signed the letter. She said she’s intimately familiar with the need for accessible child care. Chambers Armstrong is a mother of two young children, a lawyer and a local policy maker.

“I am no different than any other parent in this community, where if I don’t have somewhere for my kids to go that I feel good about then I can’t work,” she said.

Chambers Armstrong said the struggle to access child care is even more acute for parents who work non-traditional hours.

“Louisville is increasingly wanting to be known for having this robust 24/7, 365 logistics industry,” she said. “We just need to figure out how we grow our child care sector into those spaces.”

Chambers Armstrong said improving accessibility needs to start with easing zoning restrictions that limit where child care centers can operate. She is one of the sponsors of a Metro Council ordinance that would allow facilities with up to 12 children to be located in residential areas. Currently, Louisville’s zoning code limits those centers to commercial areas. That ordinance is still awaiting a vote from the full council.

In addition to zoning restrictions, the coalition’s letter calls on Louisville Metro to help bolster a beleaguered child care industry, which was already struggling before the pandemic. A 2020 survey conducted by United Way and other similar organizations found that the number of regulated providers in Kentucky dropped from 4,400 in 2013 to 2,400 in 2019. An additional 11-15% said they might have to close because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The coalition wants the city to help reopen centers that have already closed, incentivize employers to start child care services in their own workplaces and give interest-free loans to providers that want to locate in “child care desert neighborhoods,” such as Shawnee, Portland and southwest Jefferson County.

Wage supplements for child care workers is also a top priority. A recent Metro United Way survey of 108 Jefferson County providers found a need for 613 additional employees. Mandy Simpson, the organization’s chief policy advisor, said meeting that need would open up more than 6,500 new spots for children.

“Our local child care workers are making just barely above $10 per hour,” Simpson said. “They can drive down the street and find opportunities to make 20%, 50% more than that and not have the same risks and challenges. We have to find a way for child care to compete.” 

Wage supplements could also help child care providers access matching ARP grants from the state

Simpson said child care is not only an education issue or a family issue, it’s an economic issue. Data from KentuckianaWorks show there are 95,000 people of prime working age in the Louisville area who are currently unemployed or have dropped out of the labor force. One of the top reasons, the organization says, is access to affordable childcare. 

An analysis by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce shows workforce participation rates for mothers in the state dropped more sharply during the pandemic than fathers, or single men and women.

“When [early childhood education] is not available, not only are we going to face a generation of consequences for children who did not have access to that care, but we are going to see parents who have missed profound opportunities to be earners in our communities and to be contributing to the recovery of the economy,” Simpson said. 

While Fischer and Louisville Metro Council have already approved two rounds of ARP spending, roughly $150 million remains unallocated. 

Metro Council work groups focused on specific topics like public safety and affordable housing have done most of the work to divvy up ARP funds. The “healthy neighborhoods” group is planning to put out specific funding requests around child care early next year.

The council is expected to move forward on another round of spending after the holidays.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL.