At a signing ceremony earlier this month, Gov. Martin O'Malley made official the first-ever contract between the state and family child care providers who participate in Maryland's child care subsidy program. I'm among the people who benefit from this agreement - so are the children in my care and their families.
I am a family child care provider, a homeowner and a parent. There are days when I start work at 6 a.m.; some nights my last child isn't picked up until 11:30 p.m.
This is the nature of family child care. Many parents prefer this kind of care because we're conveniently located, our hours are more flexible and we're less expensive than centers. Also, there's virtually no turnover, which means stability and individual attention that younger children in particular benefit from. Some children in my care have been with me since they were babies and are now in school, thriving in spite of challenges.
My fellow providers and I joined together to form a union some years back because we knew something needed to be done not just to ensure rights for providers but also to improve care for the nearly 25,000 children whose parents receive a subsidy so they can work or go to school. When providers voted this summer (by a 30-to-1 margin) to approve our first contract, I told the children in my care all about it. This was a wonderful lesson for them: If you stick with something and work hard, you can accomplish anything.
It was a long journey getting here. We had doors slammed in our faces. We were told that we had no place in decision-making, that we didn't matter, and that we'd never succeed. But now we have a contract and the recognition that we are professionals and early educators.
Our new contract gives us a voice in decision-making and raises subsidy rates to help increase access for families. (However, subsidies remain so low that parents receiving them still only have access to about a quarter of day cares in their area.) We also won the first-ever subsidy rate increase that didn't include a corresponding parent co-pay increase.
We've slowly built positive, productive relationships with Governor O'Malley's office, the Maryland State Department of Education and other stakeholders. We haven't solved all our challenges - for instance, many of us still lack retirement security or access to affordable health care - but our work is making a difference for our profession and the kids we care for. For example, providers are now partnering with the state and other stakeholders to improve training and encourage informal providers to get licensed.
We've done a lot to bridge the divide between the people doing the work and the people deciding how that work should be done and are fixing a system that was plagued by inefficiency and lack of communication.
If you have any imagination, you can see how this benefits parents and the entire state. Still, critics who oppose working people standing up for themselves will stop at nothing to discredit our work. Take the recent article on this page from columnist Marta Hummel Mossburg.
Instead of speaking to providers or parents who participate in the state's child care subsidy program, detractors fall back on right-wing talking points about taxes and strikes. First, as far as strikes go: We would never put out the children in our care. Just ask any of us - even when payments from the state are unacceptably late or parents fail to meet their co-pay obligations, we continue to care for children because their well-being matters so much to us.
Second, on the costs and benefits of our contribution to the state, research confirms what providers see every day: High-quality child care and early education have long-term positive effects on children's development, from increasing graduation rates to helping lower rates of teen pregnancy and drug abuse.
Access to child care means single mothers can work and children get a better start in life - both of which enrich our state's economy today and in the future. Child care subsidies for low-income families are endorsed by women's and children's organizations, anti-poverty groups and community leaders across the country for a reason: because they work.
Our new contract is a win for children and hardworking child care providers. We are too strong and care too much about our kids to let attacks deter us from moving Maryland and our children forward.
Crystal Barksdale is a licensed family child care provider in Baltimore and a member of SEIU Local 500, Maryland's family child care union. Her e-mail is msclilrug firstname.lastname@example.org.