Free child care coming for 1,000 Harris County children under new plan


Harris County is moving forward with a plan to improve and expand access to child care as the industry struggles to bounce back from the pandemic.

Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to approve a $26.2 million program that will open new seats at high-quality child care centers for an additional 800 to 1,000 children in low-income families residing in child care deserts, according to officials.

Child care will be free for families participating in the program, which is funded under the American Rescue Plan Act. The program will also increase compensation for child care workers and providers to reduce turnover and improve quality of care. 

“That is really what we need to recover from the pandemic, is to build back capacity within the child care sector,” said Sara Mickelson, director for early childhood initiatives at the county’s administration office. “This is about contracting with child care centers who can open brand new child care supply.” 

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The county awarded a two-year contract to BakerRipley, a Houston nonprofit, to implement the program with help from the United Way of Greater Houston. The measure passed unanimously with no discussion. 

Claudia Aguirre, BakerRipley president and CEO, said in a statement that the program is a step toward financial stability and self-sufficiency for hard-working families. She commended the Commissioners Court for “continuing to recognize that high-quality child care is a vital component for the economy, workforce development and socioeconomic mobility.” 

The program, called Early REACH, will pilot a new funding strategy known as the contracted slots model, which has seen some success in other jurisdictions across the country, including Georgia.

This model allows the program administrator, in this case BakerRipley, to contract directly with child care providers to open new slots for low-income children. Providers will be paid in advance for a set number of spaces at a rate that supports high-quality care and living wages for staff. This set-up will give these business owners more financial stability, Mickelson said. 

The program should give participating families more security, too, Mickelson said, by matching them with child care providers who already have a reserved spot and eliminating co-pays that can sometimes be too costly. 

Providers and families interested in the program can find more information and sign up for online updates. The program, which is open to children up to age 4, will likely begin providing service in June, according to the county. 

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The contracted slots model stems from recommendations by a Houston and Harris County working group tasked with finding opportunities to improve child care in the region. 

The pandemic took a toll on the industry, forcing parents to leave the workforce as child care options dwindled and workers left the field due to low wages. Children at Risk, a Houston-based nonprofit, reported that 25 percent of all child care centers in Texas closed in 2020

It’s unclear exactly how many of those have since reopened, Mickelson said, though it’s clear that supply still far outpaces demand. 

Children under 5 account for roughly 8 percent of the county’s population, and a quarter of them live in poverty, according to a February 2022 report from the working group. Child care is often the second-highest household expense behind rent, the report said. 

In Harris County, 72 percent of low-income children under 3 live in a subsidized child care desert and 91 percent live in a quality-rated provider desert, according to an analysis by the Texas Policy Lab at Rice University. 

There are an estimated 28 seats at subsidy-accepting child care providers and 14 seats at quality-rated providers for every 100 young children in Harris County, according to the analysis.  

Mickelson said the additional seats that will be created by the new program represent a “huge and important investment, especially in those priority communities, but it will still not meet the need.” 

“We still have a long way to go to meet the needs of infants and toddlers and pre-schoolers and their families, and making sure we have the supply of high-quality child care in the county,” she said. “But this demonstrates a way forward to do that.” 

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