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Expanding pre-K for low income children in Montgomery County

Here are Hans Riemer’s prepared remarks from the release of the Office of Legislative Oversight’s Report Pre K in Montgomery County and Other Jurisdictions:

Our recent joint HHS/ED committee meeting on prekindergarten, where we discussed our new OLO report, was incredibly informative. From that conversation and others, it seems to me that we now have key people across County government – my fellow Councilmembers, Superintendent Smith, our early childhood leaders at HHS – that are committed to champion an expansion of quality pre-k.

While middle class families struggle to pay for quality early care and education, their children generally do receive it. The story for low income families is different. According to research in our new strategic plan, seven out of ten of our children who qualify for free and reduced meals are not ready for kindergarten. This is because the average cost of one year of quality pre-k in Montgomery County is $13,595. That’s an access issue to our families who just don’t have the resources. The inability of these families to provide quality pre-k for their children is why the research shows such a positive impact of early education investments for low income students.

During our committee conversation, I requested OLO to provide information about how we could expand pre-k programs in an incremental or staged manner. My staff has been researching this topic and, with the benefit of OLO’s response, I believe a path forward is clear: expand existing Head Start and pre-k programs from a half day to a full day. This is the best first step the County Council can take to provide early education for our most disadvantaged children.

Currently we provide half day pre-k to over 2,800 children. There are proven benefits to full-day pre-k for 4 year olds. Taking these programs to full-day is an important step. It could be implemented through a combination of approaches: if the school has room to expand the program, then it will be school based; if the school-based program does not have room to expand, then we can contract with private providers.

There is widespread academic research to support investing in enhanced early education for 4 year olds. The reasoning is simple on its face: children who begin learning one year earlier receive an additional year of education. Without quality early education, many of the lowest income children will enter kindergarten far behind their peers; they will struggle ever to catch up and many will not catch up. Pre-k for low-income 4 year olds helps put these children on a more even footing, which pays enormous dividends over time. The OLO research documents the incredible impact that pre-k can have and how it allows a school system to use its funds more efficiently later by reducing remedial or intervention expenses for these children during their subsequent years of education.

An investment of $20 million would enable us to provide full-day pre-k to ALL children eligible for free and reduced meals. This is achievable by, for example, investing $5 million per year over four years. The payback for our educational goals would be enormous. An investment plan of this nature would not require additional revenue sources or breaking the charter limit.

I urge my colleagues to consider the importance of pre-k for low income families as we begin to formulate our goals for this year’s County budget.

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Victories for Child Care

Hans Riemer speaks at a rally for child care

Councilmember Hans Riemer speaks at a rally in support of his bill to expand the County’s child care services

Having two young children at home, I talk with a lot of parents about the challenge of securing good child care. I also see how early childhood programs can affect educational outcomes years later in our schools.  These are issues that challenge all of our families, whether working poor or upwardly mobile.

Recognizing the importance of child care and early education, the County Council voted yesterday to unanimously approve legislation that I hope will push us in a new direction for how our county government approaches this issue.

The legislation, which represents a combination of ideas proposed by myself and Councilmember Nancy Navarro, creates a new policy officer for Child Care, Early Care and Education in our HHS department and tasks the officer with developing a “Strategic Plan” for getting to universal early care as well as a “Quality Enhancement Initiative” to strengthen home-based child care services, a vital part of our child care market.

I hope that the successful passage of this legislation will be a turning point in our drive to get to universal early care. At times over the years, Montgomery County has been a national leader in developing innovative ideas to support child care service delivery. With focused leadership and a process for bringing together stakeholders I hope that we can once again break new ground.

There are no easy answers, and fundamental change for this public need will only come when all levels of government are working towards the goal. As President Barack Obama said in his 2015 State of the Union, “It’s time we stop treating child care as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Thanks to strong advocacy in the community and support from my colleagues on the County Council, including HHS Committee Chair and Council President George Leventhal whose support really helped move this bill, we are now moving forward with new initiatives here in Montgomery County.

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Making child care a priority

On March 17, I introduced legislation creating a Montgomery County Office of Child Care, Early Care and Education to make affordable, quality, enriching child care available to all families.

A rising number of families in Montgomery County are struggling to find affordable, high quality child care. Census data shows that there are more than 64,852 children below the age of five in the county and the Maryland Family Network reports that regulated child care providers offer only 39,084 slots. This leaves a gap of some 26,000 children. Some undoubtedly stay home with family members and many more are cared for by informal, unregistered providers. Some kids may attend child care in other jurisdictions. But ask any parent about their experience with waiting lists and it is clear that demand far exceeds supply for quality, regulated child care. The skyrocketing price of regulated child care supports this theory. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that parents spend 10% or less of their family income on child care. Montgomery County residents, on average, spent 22% of their income on child care in 2014. Child care in Montgomery County costs between 32% and 40% more than the state average. The State predicts that costs will continue to increase through 2018 by between 9% and 14% on average. Infant care is predicted to increase a staggering 40% over the next three years with family care providers.

To address these challenges, I propose legislation establishing a new Office of Child Care, Early Care and Education. This Office would have a Director with the seniority and authority to shape policy and forge meaningful partnerships across agencies and with the private sector. Some functions would be consolidated from the Early Childhood group in the County’s Department of Health and Human Services and other offices with child care functions across the government. The Office would be charged with developing, updating, and implementing a Child Care Strategic Plan that addresses child care and early learning in a comprehensive way, establishing new relationships and partnerships with agencies and businesses, overseeing the selection of child care providers in public space, and building a stronger bond with parents in the community.

As President Obama said in his most recent State of the Union, “It’s time we stop treating child care as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us.” I agree with those comments and I believe this Office will help us to appropriately define the challenge and meet it.

In Maryland, most government regulation and promotion of child care is handled by the State, though the County supplements the state’s efforts in certain areas. HHS is laser focused, as it’s website states, on core services that “protect the community’s health, protect the health and safety of at-risk children and vulnerable adults and address basic human needs including food, shelter and clothing.” This is as it should be. We rely on this Department to provide a robust safety net that protects our most vulnerable residents.

We do not, however, only provide education for the most disadvantaged children. I believe we should have a policy strategy for child care that is similarly focused on the entire population, while resources are prioritized according to need. Like education, adequate availability of child care affects every family in Montgomery County. A county program that ensures that every family in Montgomery County has access to high quality, affordable, enriching child care is crucial for developing our workforce and economy, ensuring equal opportunity for men and women, and reducing the achievement gap. The creation of this Office will not solve these problems by itself, but it will at least provide us with the analytical framework and focused staffing to make informed investments and take a deliberate approach to define our next steps. The mission is broader than social services and for this reason I believe it is necessary to establish this function as a principal office rather than a division inside of HHS.

The goals for the Office include:

  • Researching need, availability and cost of care.
  • Identifying measures to reduce the rising cost of child care, and ensuring that affordable early child care and learning are available to all County residents.
  • Ensuring that there are sufficient providers and spaces to meet rising demand.
  • Improving the overall quality of early care and education to adequately prepare children for kindergarten and beyond.
  • Fully integrating child care and early learning into our economic and workforce development strategy.
  • Regular reporting on progress towards the plan.

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Daily Journal (March 7th)

Today I received a tour of the Shady Grove Innovation Center, one of the county’s five business incubators. Some years back the county launched an aggressive program to incubate new businesses, and today it is one of the country’s largest. The innovation centers provide a more efficient way for entrepreneurs to get their companies off the ground, and also they provide access to a community of other entrepreneurs and workers.

I met Richard Garr, CEO of Neuralstem, a company building therapies with Stem Cells. I met Noel Doheny, of Epigenomics, a company that is seeking FDA approval for a device that will improve reliability and reduce cost for identifying colonoscopy.

I’m pictured here with Tashu Trivedi, an IT entrepreneur whose company provides support for the financial services that Federal agencies use.

In this picture, I am with Dr. Yan Su, a former academic researcher whose company, GenProMarkers, is working to identify a biological “proof” of PTSD that the military can use in determining benefits. You can’t quite see it, but we are looking at a slide with an example of his research.

Each of these entrepreneurs finds a different value in the innovation center. For some, like Dr. Su, it helps him make the transition from academic researcher to business manager – the “technology transfer” issue that we hear so much about. With agencies like NIH in our midst, for example, we must see new pathways to help commercialize the economic value that can be created from research programs.

This science and technology based economy is crucial to our future in the county. As I face down a continuing budget crisis, I have concluded that if we want to pay for school buildings, we need more office buildings. Our over-reliance on residential property tax income is creating a real challenge for the county. With the innovation centers, we are planting seeds for a spring to come.

My last meeting of the day was with youth from Gandhi Brigade—a great non profit that focuses on youth using the media for social justice issues. We started off the meeting with an ice breaker called “The Big Wind Blows”. This got our energy going for the conversation that followed. Gandhi Brigade youth expressed the need for space to hold community activities and engagement amongst generations. There needs to be a space that the community sees as their own, one that is affordable.