$100 million in federal money flows to childcare programs. Another place the state surplus could be used.

The Arkansas Human Services Department has distributed a glowing news release about $100 million sent to childcare providers for service improvements.

One: This is federal money from the American Rescue Plan, with another $180 million or so on the way to Arkansas. Thanks, Joe Biden.

Two: If the state is so proud to support the “critical work” these agencies do with federal money, might this be one way to use the enormous $1.5 billion budget surplus after the federal money is gone? And remember, Arkansas’s Republican congressmen have been hit or miss, mostly missing, in supporting Biden’s spending plans, including his call to renew the child tax credit and support for child care costs.

The state news release makes it sound like a good way to spend money, even state money.

The Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education (DCCECE) has sent more than $100 million to child care providers around the state as part of a funding package that supports pandemic-related operational expenses and investments that improve the quality of services these facilities can offer.

The funding is administered by DHS and available through the federal American Rescue Plan Act as part of a concentrated effort to provide additional financial support to child care facilities, homes, and after school programs in Arkansas licensed on or before March 11, 2021.

A total of $286 million has been allocated for stabilization of child care in Arkansas, which includes improving the quality of care, covering pandemic-related expenses, and expanding child care programs. Approximately $110 million has been sent to child care centers around the state, and the rest will be distributed in the coming months.

“We are proud to be working to get this money out to support these child care providers and the critical work they do,” said DCCECE Director Tonya Williams. “The pandemic underscored the importance of having a network of quality child care providers, but it also revealed some vulnerabilities. These funds will support providers and help them emerge from the pandemic stronger than before and ready to serve Arkansans for many years to come.”

The funds are being used in different ways at different facilities, but all of them go toward supporting operations and improving quality.

At First United Methodist CDC in Hot Springs, the grants will pay for a much-needed overhaul of the outdoor playground as well as some additions to classrooms, including new high chairs and toys. The center serves about 75 children ranging in age from 6 weeks to kindergarten.

“It’s going to make a world of difference,” said Shannon Jones, Director of First United Methodist CDC. “It really gave us the opportunity to do some things that needed to be done.”

Wendi Linden, meanwhile, owns and operates Ms. Wendi’s Little Tots Family Child Care in Bentonville. She cares for 10 children ages 2 and up.

Linden received $7,500 in operational funding, which helped cover her mortgage and utilities, and $15,000 in a quality improvement grant, which will pay for some building improvements, a fence, and the installation of a storm shelter. The latter is important, Linden said, so the children won’t have to cram into a bathtub when there’s a tornado warning.

“It’s really been on my heart for a long time to keep all the kiddos safe,” she said. “It’s just been really a big weight off our shoulders to have that help and that support.”

The grants have been a welcome support, Linden said, and the money makes a real difference.

“I have seen so many struggling around here and closing, and then parents scrambling to find places for their kids,” she said. “I don’t want to be one that has to close and put the families out.”

At Doodlebugs Daycare Family Child Care in Huntsville, owner and director Debbie Whitman cares for about ten children ages 3 to 5, and the funds provided through the grant have helped her stay open and make improvements.

She called the program a “godsend.”

“Oh, on a scale of one to ten, it was absolutely a ten,” she said. “Having these grants has allowed me to purchase things that the kids needed and wanted, but the funds just weren’t there.”

Crystal Penick, who runs Cornerstone Childcare Center in Magnolia, said the grants were an “unexpected blessing” that allowed her to provide bonuses to her staff, to update technology in the office and classrooms, to replace flooring, and to divide a large room into smaller classrooms for preschool and school-age children.

The money has allowed Penick’s center not only to keep its doors open during the pandemic, but to truly thrive.

“This summer I have record-breaking enrollment with about 85 children,” she said. “I’m yet again hiring extra help for the summer … I’m just so grateful.”

The next initiative from the American Rescue Plan funding is expanding infant/toddler and school age care as these are gap areas in the state.  Existing providers now have an opportunity if they have space available to expand on these age categories. DCCECE has awarded $4 million in expansion to date.

All programs who were licensed on or before March 11, 2021, are encouraged to take advantage of this one-time funding opportunity.

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