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Multi-million dollar program to fund early learning scholarships in Franklin County

 Franklin County Commissioner Erica Crawley (left) speaks on the Franklin County Rise program at the All God's Kidz South learning center.
Renee Fox
Franklin County Commissioner Erica Crawley (left) speaks on the Franklin County Rise program at the All God's Kidz South learning center.

Franklin County families making too much money to qualify for public assistance with childcare but aren’t paid enough to comfortably pay for the service, have some relief in sight with a childcare scholarship program.

County commissioners Thursday announced a $23 million program to be administered over the course of two years with Action for Children, as part of the region’s RISE Together anti-poverty initiative.

There are multiple elements to the program.

“It will increase the accessibility and affordability of high-quality early learning for families, incentivize childcare providers to maintain high-quality care, expand hours, participate in publicly funded childcare and provide financial and housing assistance for early learning educators who are chronically, chronically underpaid,” said Franklin County Commissioner Erica Crawley.

The program is funded with American Rescue Plan funds but is expected to continue with other currently unidentified funding sources after two years, Crawley said.

About 500 kids are expected to take advantage of scholarships of up to $10,000 per year with about $11 million of the funding.

Families facing the “benefits cliff' make between 142% and 300% of the federal poverty guidelines.

“Families rely on childcare to help prepare children for school, and so the parents can work, but high-quality care can cost more than college in Franklin County, and parents who make as little as $25,000 per year don’t qualify for assistance,” a county news release states.

Even a mere twenty-cent raise could push someone out of publicly-funded childcare programs.

“While publicly funded childcare is available for families at the lowest income bracket, for too many working families, affordable, quality childcare remains out of reach,” Crawley said.

A single mom or dad with two kids making about $69,000 a year can expect to pay even more for childcare than rent, Crawley said, around $20,000 a year.

“What a cruel irony for parents to be told that even though their job doesn’t pay enough to afford childcare, it makes them ineligible for childcare assistance,” said Commissioner Kevin L. Boyce. “The benefits cliff is the result of federal policy that simply hasn’t kept up with the cost of childcare. If we realistically want people in the workforce and moving up the economic ladder, we have to find ways to make childcare affordable.”

Applications for the program opened Thursday.

More than 200 of Central Ohio’s 1,200 childcare centers closed during the pandemic. Of those, one in six haven’t reopened, officials said Thursday. In Columbus, about 170 of the 800 centers closed during the pandemic.

About $11 million from the program will pay for several cash-incentive and relief elements to bolster childcare providers in the region. Those applications are expected to open in April.

Provider supports include up to $3,000 for 750 providers for taking on low-income families, up to $10,000 for improving their state ratings, and up to $5,000 per year for expanding to non-traditional hours.

In addition, $500,000 of the RISE funding is dedicated to emergency rental assistance for childcare workers.

“These vital teachers are predominantly women and people of color and chronically underpaid, with an average wage for credentialed lead teachers averaging just $12.22 per hour—about 41% of the median income for Franklin County. RISE teacher supports will offer an average of $3,000 in rental assistance payments per household,” the news release states.

The program builds on funding the city of Columbus provided for a similar program.

To learn more about the Franklin County RISE program, including detailed eligibility requirements, and to apply for the scholarships or incentives, visit RISE.FranklinCountyOhio.gov.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.