On announcing the proposal, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the measure would be “the largest known investment of American Rescue Plan dollars in childcare by a city or by a county anywhere in our nation.”
Approved on a 3 to 2 party-line vote at commissioners court last week, the program will require participating vendors to pay a minimum wage of $15 per hour and will target areas with fewer daycare options.
Hidalgo said that early childcare programs which include “high quality childcare” produce long-term positive effects, including increasing graduation rates and preventing contact with the criminal justice system.
“Half of infants and toddlers in Harris County who have working parents do not receive childcare in a formal setting,” said Hidalgo during a press conference. “They may be under informal care by family members, but this often prevents parents from re-entering the workforce.”
Joining Hidalgo for the announcement, Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) asserted that providing childcare “should be the role of every level of government to ensure the better growth and development of our children.”
Multiple studies of early childcare and education programs tout positive outcomes, but some note that improvements in academic readiness dissipate by grade three and some students exhibited more behavioral problems.
Hidalgo explained that the county would hire two separate entities, one to identify which childcare providers would qualify for the program and one to identify eligible families. She added that county officials had been planning the program for the last eight months.
Commissioners Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) and Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) voted against the measure, with Ramsey noting that other agencies might be able to better provide such services.
“There are 25 school districts in Harris County, there’s a Harris County Department of Education, it is the responsibility of the school districts and the department of education to deal with these education needs,” said Cagle, who added that the county had more urgent needs related to rising crime and a flailing jail system.
“Up to $48 million will go to the early childhood education program. I would urge my colleagues, that because we are in the middle of the crime-demic that we are in right now, that we take that up to $48 million and consider putting that into the current crisis of protecting our citizens.”
Despite rising homicide rates and a federal lawsuit regarding the jail, the county rejected 82 percent of law enforcement funding requests in the most recent budget cycle.
Since taking office in 2018, Hidalgo has overseen a vast expansion of county programs and expenditures. She launched programs related to early childhood education, additional healthcare, rental assistance, and legal defense for immigrants facing deportation.
Following the commissioners’ approval of the childcare funding program, Republican nominee for Harris County Judge Alexandra del Moral Mealer criticized the vote in a statement, writing that while early childhood education was important, crime in Harris County was an “immediate and critical concern.”
“Spending $48 million of ARPA funding on 1,000 slots while ignoring our core duty of protecting those same students by investing more in public safety is irresponsible.”
“If we truly want to set kids up for success, we have to foster a safe environment that enables them to thrive.”
Harris County expects to receive $915 million in ARPA funding by the end of June 2022. All funds must be committed by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026. Commissioners adopted an “equity framework” for ARPA spending, with a commitment to address racial and ethnic disparities “so that pandemic recovery plays a role in the long-term remediation of systemic harms to populations of color.”
The Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) has also approved the distribution of $3.45 billion in ARPA funds for direct relief to childcare programs in 2022, and approved another $75 million to increase the number of high-quality home- and center-based childcare providers. TWC says eligible new or expanding providers are those serving families in a “pre-defined childcare desert,” those expanding availability of care for infants aged up to 17 months, and those operating in partnership with companies to serve children of employees.
In addition to approving the childcare program, commissioners unanimously approved a proposal from Ramsey to create a Harris County Safe School Commission to assist local school districts in developing and implementing new safety protocols before the start of the 2022-23 school year in August.
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Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.