The Miami Herald

Thousands in Miami-Dade face loss of child-care subsidies

More than 1,000 Miami-Dade children may be evicted from their child-care programs — and thousands more may be added to an already burgeoning wait list — as Florida early-learning administrators cut millions from a county program that provides subsidized child care for working poor and needy families.

The cutbacks, part of a statewide effort to redistribute dwindling child-care dollars among the state’s 67 counties, already have resulted in a $3.7 million reduction in funding this year in Miami-Dade as part of a $22.3 million cumulative cut over the next six years. The reductions have outraged Miami children’s advocates, who fear struggling families will be forced to leave young children home alone in order to keep their jobs.

“Leaving these children alone would be devastating, and I would probably see their parents in court,” said Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman, a 16-year veteran of the child-welfare bench and vice chair of the county’s Early Learning Coalition.

“The school-readiness funding is a win-win for the social and emotional development of young children, and it enables their parents to work,” Lederman added. “If we remove the funding, both the children and their parents will suffer.”

The vast majority of parents whose child-care bills are paid by the state are considered “working poor” — meaning they are employed, but do not earn enough income to pay for a child-care center or babysitter. Most of the children in the program are below age 5. Currently, 23,000 Miami-Dade and Monroe families pay for their child’s pre-school bill with money provided by the Early Learning Coalition.

In a July 13 letter to Gov. Rick Scott’s chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, the chairman of the Miami-Dade Early Learning Coalition, Octavio A. Verdeja, Jr., warned that, as a result of the cutbacks, some families “will either have to quit their jobs or leave their children in what could be unsafe care.”

“The overall impact of the reduction,” Verdeja said, “is that 6,000 fewer children will be served in a county with a waiting list of over 17,000 children ages 0-5.”

Trakeya Martin, whose 1-year-old daughter is enrolled in a pre-school program at Liberty Academy Day Care in Miami, said her child already has benefited from the program in the year she has been there. “She already knows her ABCs, she loves to sing songs, and she has really good hand-eye coordination,” Martin said. “If they don’t have that education, they will get left behind,” Martin added.

The spending cuts are part of a six-year statewide effort aimed at redistributing the state’s $1.2 billion subsidized child-care budget among early-learning administrators throughout the state. A December 2011 state Auditor General report suggested the new funding formula, recommending that disparities across county lines be eliminated, and that counties with the largest percentage of wait-listed children be given more dollars.

Though Miami-Dade and Monroe counties are facing serious cutbacks, other counties will see increases in funding, including Broward, which will get $348,000 in new dollars this year. Other large counties facing cutbacks include Hillsborough, facing a $1 million reduction, and Duval, which stands to lose $193,000, the Miami Early Learning Coalition’s director, Evelio Torres, said at a board meeting Tuesday morning.

Some of the biggest gains will occur in Southwest Florida, where Hendry, Lee, Collier and Glades counties all will see their subsidized child-care budgets rise, Torres said.

About $300,000 of Miami-Dade’s initial losses have been diverted to Osceola County, which had twice as many children, 3,121, on a wait list as were in child care, 1,279. As a percentage of children in need of services, the number of wait-listed youngsters in the Central Florida county was higher than in Miami-Dade. But as the largest county in the state, Miami-Dade’s wait list dwarfed those of other counties.

Susan Sunka, the director of Osceola’s Early Learning Coalition, said all Florida counties were in the same unfortunate boat, fighting for scarce dollars on behalf of their children. “We are all grossly underfunded,” Sunka said. “To have to pit ourselves against each other when we are all underfunded is pretty sad,” Sunka said.

Administrators in Miami fear the spending cuts may force some day-care centers to go out of business as they see their income decline. “A lot of [child-care] providers are concerned that they will have to close their doors and that this might be the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Torres said.

Mel Jurado, director of Florida’s Office of Early Learning, said lawmakers left the program with a kind of Sophie’s Choice: in order to improve funding for some growing counties, they would have to remove it from others.

“It is non-negotiable. It’s the law. It’s what we were mandated to do,” Jurado said of the requirement that spending be based on an “equity” formula. “It’s beyond my control.”

“I do not, in any way, diminish the need, or the challenges we face,” said Jurado, a former chair of Hillsborough County’s Early Learning Coalition. “The worst news you can ever deliver is that you can’t meet every need.”

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