As Colorado’s early childhood leaders discuss how to spend a new $41 million pot of federal coronavirus relief money, there are lots of unsettled questions about who needs the money most. 

Some advocates like the idea of a simple grant program that will fast-track funds to child care providers who need urgent help with rent or other expenses. Some say they want extra consideration for providers in child care deserts — communities where there’s already a critical shortage of licensed child care slots. Others say the state must ensure that private providers serving middle-class families get some of the funds. 

One thing everyone agrees on is that $41 million, no matter how it’s divvied up, won’t get the job done. More public money — probably from the federal government given the state’s grim budget forecast — will be needed to resuscitate an industry that was already struggling to stay afloat even before the pandemic hit. 

“I would agree that $41 million will not go very far if we don’t maximize all the other sources and supports for small businesses,” said Erin Mewhinney, director of the state’s Division of Early Care and Learning at the Colorado Department of Human Services. 

Many child care providers are eligible for forgivable loans and other streams of federal, state and private money for coronavirus relief, but navigating the myriad requirements can be tricky. 

The $41 million coming to Colorado’s early childhood sector is part of a $3.5 billion stream earmarked for early childhood in the CARES Act passed by Congress in late March. The amount coming to states varies, with Wyoming slated to get an estimated $4 million and California around $339 million. 

In Colorado, some of the early childhood relief money is already spoken for.

State officials expect to use around $13 million to cover the cost of emergency child care for essential workers, such as health care staff and first responders. To date, the state’s program has placed around 5,000 children in emergency care, which is available tuition-free to parents through May 17. The final amount earmarked for emergency care could go up or down, depending on participation and whether the state decides to pay for additional weeks. 

The state will use another $12 million of the $41 million for its child care subsidy program for low-income families. Specifically, the extra money will allow counties, which administer the program, to ensure providers still get paid even if children enrolled in the subsidy program don’t attend during the pandemic. In many counties, the usual rules on absences are strict, with providers losing out on reimbursements if children miss attending more than three times a month.

After covering emergency child care and sending extra money to the subsidy program, there could be roughly $16 million of the original $41 million left for other needs. 

Amy Payton, executive director of the Early Childhood Council Leadership Alliance, worries that if state officials extend the amount of tuition-free child care for essential workers past the current eight-week span, the money could disappear quickly. 

She hopes some will be saved for the longer-term recovery needs of child care providers when it comes time for them to reopen. 

“A big fear across the board is that we’re going to come out of this with significantly reduced child care capacity,” said Payton, whose group supports Colorado’s 34 early childhood councils with training, conferences and technical assistance. 

A recent survey of 6,000 providers by the National Association for the Education of Young Children found that only 11% felt confident in their ability to survive an extended closure. Roughly 30% said they could not survive a closure of longer than two weeks without financial support, and another 16% said they could not survive a closure of longer than a month. Already, many Colorado providers have been closed for nearly a month — with no clear reopening date in sight.

Kristi Koltiska, who heads an advocacy group for private child care providers, the Early Childhood Education Association of Colorado, wants to ensure the vast swath of providers who serve middle-class working families get a piece of the $41 million. 

She said it would be easy to sink a big chunk of the $41 million of early childhood relief money into the state’s subsidy program, which has long been underfunded and doesn’t serve all eligible children. 

“But you’re going to end up with this middle class that’s struggling to find child care,” she said. “It was already hard.”

About 72% of child care funding in Colorado comes from private sources such as tuition and parent fees.

Koltiska, a former child care center owner, also worries state decisions about how to spend the $41 million will be made without the feedback and transparency unusually baked into the funding conversation in non-pandemic times. 

“Our fear is they’re going to do it quickly and quietly and we’re going to have to figure out how to survive afterward,” she said.  

Elsa Holguín, president and CEO of the Denver Preschool Program, said leaders need to get a cut of the $41 million into providers’ hands quickly, and give them technical assistance so they can compete with other small businesses rushing to access other relief funds. 

But Holguín, who is co-chair of the state’s Early Childhood Leadership Commission, also wants state leaders to think long term about how to sustain such a vulnerable industry and raise their collective voice to get more federal funds devoted to the sector’s recovery.

“I’m hoping that this is just the beginning of what the state is going to be doing for early childhood.”