Alabama Takes Two-Gen Approach to Child Care
Some may have been surprised to read a recent syndicated column by progressive icon and former Texas Agriculture commissioner Jim Hightower with the headline: “Can the Rest of the Nation Follow Alabama?” But the subject of Hightower’s praise was the state of Alabama’s much-lauded, two-generation approach to providing quality child care for all of its residents. Faye Nelson, deputy commissioner for Alabama’s Department of Human Resources, spoke with Spotlight recently about how the state’s child care approach and the challenges it faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
We have heard such great things about the work Alabama is doing with kids, so give us a bit of an overview. Tell me how this two-generation approach got started?
When we think about the two-generation approach, the focus really is on success for both the parents and the children at the same time. We look at four key components as we design our programs: impacting families that are in poverty; education; the economic support that they have, or that they may need for the health and wellbeing of the children and the family; and the social capital. We want people to be able to function well within their society, so that’s what we concentrate on as we look at a two-gen approach to our delivery of services.
At the Alabama Department of Human Resources, we are the lead agency for the federal Child Care Development Block Grant, which some people refer to as the CCDBG funding. This is the federal funding that we receive to operate our subsidy program within Alabama to support child care for low-income families. Right now, we are serving a little over 48,000 children through our subsidy programs. We also license and monitor child care programs—we have a little over 1,200 licensed day care centers, and we also license and monitor close to 600 family homes and group day care homes. So, we have a capacity right now for serving a little over 100,000 children through the child care programs that we administer.
We also have state child care quality initiatives. We have over 30 contractors that we utilize in that area to support quality initiatives that we fund through our CCDBG funding. We also operate a state Early Head Start child care partnership program. Alabama DHR is one of six state agencies that was awarded federal funds to administer a statewide Head Start child care partnership program, and we are serving 566 low-income children, ages zero to three, as well as their families. This allows the families to receive access to quality, affordable child care through a state-level partnership, which is a very unusual arrangement, but we are very proud of the program that we are administering in Alabama. We have 344 children that we are serving in child care centers, and we have 222 families and children that we are serving in family child care homes, which makes us very unique as far as our structure with the Early Head Start child care partnership. This also provides coaching support and professional development opportunities to the staff in the centers, as well as family home care providers. We’re very proud of a recent federal review we received of our programs that found we are meeting all requirements of all the applicable Head Start performance standards, the laws, the regulations, as well as the policy requirements. We’re very elated to get those results.
I also wanted to highlight the high-quality child care that we are providing through our QRIS program. That’s the Quality Rating and Improvement System that’s part of a national systemic approach to assess, approve, and communicate the level of quality in each early care and education program. DHR has been administering the QRIS star program since 2016 for licensed child care centers, and we also have a structure in place where we have family, as well as group care facilities, participate in the program. What it does is really showcase a child care program that is committed to higher quality child care, and it gives parents greater access to high-quality child care for their children. And it increases the financial compensation for the child care providers.
We also work with some of the universities to create quality standards that help produce great after-school programs for our kindergarten through eighth graders. And we fund scholarships that we provide to help fund individuals who are working toward credentials, degrees in child development, early education, early care and education, and things of that nature. Again, we’re trying to increase the professional capacity of those out here who care for our children.
How about your response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
The pandemic has made even more clear how critical child care is as a component of the workforce. We had a rapid response in March of 2020 when we really became impacted mostly by COVID. As an agency, we provided sustainability payments as quickly as possible by beginning to pay providers based on enrollment. Our practice had been to pay them based on attendance, but we changed that in March of 2020 for a period of time and paid providers based on the number of children enrolled. And then in July, trying to keep the momentum going to get funds out to the providers, we provided what we called TASCC (Temporary Assistance for Stabilizing Child Care) grants. These were temporary assistance grants that we provided to centers, as well as homes, regardless of whether they were participating in the subsidy program. In April of this year, we came back, and we provided TASCC-2 grants at $500 per child based on daytime capacity. And these grants allowed a great deal of flexibility—providers were able to use these funds to retain or to hire employees, for classroom materials or anything they needed to try to secure a safe environment for the children and the employees who were there. We also increased access by expanding the eligibility up to 200% of the federal poverty level. This enabled many more families to be eligible to receive subsidy dollars. In June of this year, we also provided subsidy payments to health care workers, emergency responders, those individuals that were considered essential. We also suspended co-pays, so parents didn’t have to be concerned with paying those during the pandemic. We are continuously moving forward and trying to address ways to ease those that are in need within our state.
One thing we’re looking at now is using funding to provide incentives to those working in the child care field, whom we know are making salaries that are much below the average income needed to become self-sufficient. That helps the center maintain a stable staff, but also enables a child to have a steady provider that will give parents a better sense of security.
If I could follow up just on the child care piece, we hear so much about states struggling with so many providers having gone under or not able to reopen. Do you feel like Alabama has lessened that trend by the actions that you’ve taken?
Oh, most definitely. In fact, we’ve been surveying our providers on a regular basis, starting in March of last year. In March when COVID hit, there were only about 12% of our facilities that were open or thinking about even remaining open. The last survey that we did, in May of this year, we had 91% of our facilities that were open and operating. And we are confident that the investments that we have made in the child care centers and homes has really encouraged them to keep their doors open, because they’ve been able to invest in things that were needed in order to operate in a safe environment.
Those are really impressive numbers. And you mentioned that Alabama takes a different approach to these issues. How would you define that? What’s the big difference?
I don’t know how to compare Alabama to other states, as I really don’t know what their initiatives are. But we do believe in investing in our Alabama residents of all ages and backgrounds, and we want to make sure that all of them have access to the resources that we have available to meet their needs and enable them to become self-sufficient, because that’s our overall goal. We want to help families become independent of a government system. With all of our programs, our primary goal is to invest in what we can do to try to help families be successful.
And the two-generation approach has a lot of bipartisan support?
It does. And I want to say that the leadership within our agency, Commissioner Nancy T. Buckner, sets the tone for the working relationship between both parties because there’s a vision that we all come together on, and it’s that we want to see the citizens of Alabama be successful.
Have you begun to see results of these investments through testing results or other achievements down the line from kids who may have started in some of these programs at a younger age?
One thing we’re doing through the flexibility we have with our TANF funds is working with children who may have experienced some learning losses during the past 18 months by investing in providers who are working with them. In our programs, we focus on whether we are helping people be successful in moving away from dependency on a government system. Are we able to assist them in getting into the workforce? Are we connecting them with the proper resources so they can get adequate training, education, and real jobs?