"I know of about 30 daycare centers [in Austin] that all have an average of fifty kids or more, and that's not including daycare homes," said Ruth Kimble during a recent interview with the Austin Weekly News.
Kimble, the owner of Channing's Childcare, 5701 W. Division Street, is responsible for paying a staff of 12 and taking care of about 65 children while their parents are away at work.
She fears what may happen to her employees and the children under her care if the state doesn't find funding to make up for a nearly $300 million shortfall in the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP), which helps low-income, working parents pay people like Kimble to keep their children while they earn a living.
In its current underfunded state, CCAP "will essentially run out of money to pay child care providers as early as February – well before the June 30th end of this fiscal year," according to a statement by Illinois Action for Children.
The advocacy organization referenced several possible causes of the shortfall, including $84 million in reduced appropriations, Home Child Care rate increases due to more infants and toddlers using the program in greater numbers and a reduction in parent co-payments, among other possible causes.
According to numbers reported by Chicago Tonight, Kimble is one of "28,000 Illinois providers contracted by the state Department of Human Services' Child Care Assistance Program to serve 150,000 low-income children."
Last year, the Illinois General Assembly passed a budget that was premised on a 5 percent income tax. After the income tax rolled back to 3.75 percent on Jan. 1 this year, an immediate crisis took effect.
"So now, we have a shortfall of money coming into the state to pay childcare providers," said Kimble, who also serves as an early childhood adviser to state Rep. LaShawn Ford (8th).
"This affects childcare businesses, because they rely on that payment a month after they provide services to pay themselves and their staff," Kimble said. "Daycare centers no longer want to bring on new clients, because they're not sure they'll get paid. Parents would have to go to work and their children would go back underground again with relatives and people who aren't professional. This could result in children being in unsafe environments."
Local lawmakers, community activists, residents and childcare providers have recently begun mobilizing at the grassroots level to bring the issue to the attention of a larger audience.
"I'm encouraging you to embarrass the politicians of Illinois," said Rep. Ford at a rally he hosted inside the Austin Town Hall, 5610 W. Lake Street, on Saturday, Feb. 14.
Ford mentioned himself among the politicians he was pressuring his audience of about 60 childcare providers, community leaders and residents to embarrass; but he singled out Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner as a particular focus of grassroots pressure.
"We have to have the political will to make the governor not use children as pawns to get his political agenda passed," Ford said.
Rauner's legislative reaction to the $300 million shortfall is rather unpredictable, though. While he doesn't favor raising the income tax back up to 5 percent—one of the most obvious solutions proffered by lawmakers and concerned citizens, many of them Democrats; he nonetheless seems to have a vested interest in early childhood funding.
During his first State of the State address, Rauner said that he would increase early childhood funding "so that more at risk children can enter kindergarten ready to succeed."
Rauner's wife Diana heads The Ounce of Prevention Fund, one of several sponsor organizations of a joint statement urging Rauner to hew to his promises.
"To truly realize the Governor's state priority, the Illinois Child Care Assistance Program must be fully-funded—both to alleviate the $300 million funding crisis facing child care during this fiscal year and to ensure its viability in Illinois for the coming fiscal year," the statement reads.
In another statement urging Rauner to shore up the program with additional funding, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a longtime friend of the Governor, warned that 32,000 families and 56,000 children in the city stand to be affected if CCAP funding runs dry.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported that the "city's Department of Family and Support Services has reached out to its child care partners that rely on state funding and urged those organizations to 'do what they can to remain afloat.' But the struggle to do so 'grows by the day' that state payments are delayed."
Gov. Rauner is expected to address the funding gap in his annual budget address Feb. 18. But local activists and some lawmakers weren't content to wait until then.
Ford said that state Senators Heather Stains (7th) and Emil Jones III (14th) have filed supplemental bills that would make up for the funding gap. He also noted that the General Assembly's Black Caucus has held press conferences on the shortfall. But none of this, he noted, is a sufficient substitute for what he called "people power"—a force that trumps even the say of the state's top governing official.
"No matter what, it is people power and political will," he said. "No matter what the Governor says," Ford said.
Anita Andrews-Hutchinson, a founder of Village Leadership Academy and COO of It Takes a Village Early Learning Centers, pressed Ford's audience on Saturday to join a petition campaign.
By Valentine's Day, the petition, only several days old, had garnered more than 8,500 signatures, she said.
"Yesterday, legislators started signing the petition, because we started tagging them on Facebook," said Andrews-Hutchinson.
Since that Saturday meeting, the online moveon.org petition has garnered more than 500 more signatures. The goal is to reach 10,000 by Feb. 18—the day of Gov. Rauner's budget address. On Feb. 19, childcare providers throughout the city plan to march downtown to protest the shortfall and pressure lawmakers into action.
But for Kimble, the issue is bigger than a governor, even though the Republican who currently occupies the office is a staunch opponent of the measures she believes need to be taken to solve the state's childcare funding issues once and for all.
"I think the whole system the state has is broken," she said. "Back in January, they implemented a new system to process applications and everybody's payments were behind by about two or three months," noted Kimble.
She said that, in addition to a broken payment process, the system's funding mechanism is also broken.
"I think Rauner understands the problem," Kimble said. "I don't think he knew the problem was as big as it is. And I don't blame Gov. Quinn, because I think he walked into this situation. This has been going on for a while.
The big problem is that millionaires have to pay their fair share," she said.
"One solution is to raise the income tax back to five percent and make these people who are making millions of dollars pay their fair share and reallocate those funds back to childcare," Kimble said.
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