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NEW ORLEANS — Last summer, Derrika Richard felt stuck. She didn’t have enough money to afford child care for her three youngest children, ages 1, 2 and 3. Yet the demands of caring for them on a daily basis made it impossible for Richard, who cuts and styles hair from her home, to work. One child care assistance program rejected her because she wasn’t working enough. It felt like an unsolvable quandary: Without care, she couldn’t work; and without work, she couldn’t afford care. 

But Richard’s life changed in the fall, when, by way of a new city-funded program for low-income families called City Seats, she enrolled the three children at Clara’s Little Lambs, a child care center in the Westbank neighborhood of New Orleans. For the first time, she’s earning enough to pay her bills and afford online classes.   

“It actually paved the way for me to go to school,” Richard said on a spring morning after walking her three children to their classrooms. It’s “changed my life.” 

Derrika Richard walks her three youngest children to their child care classrooms at Clara’s Little Lambs on a March morning in New Orleans. Credit: Ariel Gilreath/The Hechinger Report

Last year, New Orleans added more than 1,000 child care seats for children from low-income families after voters approved a historic property tax increase in 2022. The referendum raised the budget of the program seven-fold — from $3 million to $21 million a year for 20 years. Because Louisiana’s early childhood fund matches money raised locally for child care, the city gets an additional $21 million to help families find care.

New Orleans is part of a growing trend of local communities passing ballot measures to expand access to child care. In Whatcom County, Washington, a property tax increase added $10 million for child care and children’s mental health to the county’s annual budget. A marijuana sales tax approved by voters in Anchorage, Alaska last year will generate more than $5 million for early childhood programs, including child care.

The state of Texas has taken a somewhat different tack. In November, voters there approved a state constitutional amendment that allows property tax relief for qualifying child care providers. Under this provision, cities and counties can choose to exempt a child care center from paying all or some of its property taxes. Dallas was among the first city-and-county combo in Texas to provide the tax break at both levels. A handful of other cities, including Austin and Houston, as well as counties encompassing swaths of the state, have passed the proposal.

About 20 of the 115 children who attend Clara’s Little Lambs child care center are funded by City Seats, a New Orleans program that pays for families to receive child care. Credit: Ariel Gilreath/The Hechinger Report

The recent local funding initiatives across the country are focused on younger children — namely infants and toddlers — more than ever before, said Diane Girouard, a senior state policy analyst with Child Care Aware, a nonprofit group that researches and advocates for child care access and funding.

“In the past, we saw more of these local or state driven initiatives focusing on pre-K, but over the last three years, we’ve seen voters approve ballot measures to invest in child care and early learning across a handful of states, cities, counties,” she said.

Fixing the Child Care Crisis 

This story is part of a series on how the child care crisis affects working parents — with a focus on solutions. It was produced by the Education Reporting Collaborative, a coalition of eight newsrooms that includes, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, Idaho Education News, The Post and Courier in South Carolina, and The Seattle Times.


Part of that trend stems from the impact the lack of child care had on the economy during the pandemic, said Olivia Allen, a co-founder and vice president of the Children’s Funding Project, a nonprofit that researches and supports local efforts to fund early childhood programs.

“The value of child care and other parts of the care economy became abundantly clear to a lot of business leaders in a painful way during Covid,” Allen said.

The recent efforts also come during a time of reckoning in the U.S. over limited child care funding — and limited seats — that impacts families in myriad ways, including, for untold numbers, the ability to hold down jobs and advance in their careers. The number of parents who reported missing work because of child care surged in 2020 at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak; it has yet to recede to pre-pandemic levels.

In Louisiana, a 2022 poll of over 3,000 parents by the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children found that more than half adjusted their work or school schedule to take care of children in the months preceding the survey. About 75 percent said they had to take at least one day off of work in the preceding three months because of a child care closure.

Part of the crisis facing many families and child care centers is that care for young children is expensive. The cost is even higher when parents want to send their kids to a high quality center.

Two girls draw during an activity at Early Partners, a child care center in New Orleans. City Seats, a program that pays for families in the parish to receive child care, funds more than a dozen child care slots at Early Partners. Credit: Ariel Gilreath/The Hechinger Report

In New Orleans, a city with a large population of workers in the service industry and other low-wage jobs, the City Seats funding has been transformative for parents struggling to hold down demanding, mostly non-unionized jobs. The program has also been a boon for the child care centers themselves.

Richard had struggled to find affordable child care off-and-on since dropping out of college when her oldest son, now 12, was born. That’s in spite of the fact that she immediately put her name down for a spot at child care centers when she discovered she was pregnant. “Literally when you see the positive line, you fill out an application,” she said.

Now that she can think about building a career again, Richard has set her sights on finishing her college degree. Her dream is to have a career in forensics.

Another parent, Mike Gavion, who has two children enrolled through City Seats at Early Partners in the Garden District, said the subsidized care allowed his wife to finish school and get a nursing job at a local hospital. Before the program was available, Gavion’s wife had to care for the children, now 2 and 4, at home, and could only make slow progress through the coursework she needed to qualify for a job. 

“It really gave us an opportunity,” Gavion said. “If we had to pay for two kids, I don’t think she would have been able to do nursing school.”

A 3-year-old boy plays in an outdoor classroom at Early Partners, a child care center in New Orleans that participates in City Seats, a tax-funded program that pays for child care. Credit: Ariel Gilreath/The Hechinger Report

Families in New Orleans who have children from newborn to age 3 and who earn within 200 percent of the federal poverty level qualify for City Seats. But many don’t immediately get a spot: As of April, City Seats had 821 students on its waitlist, according to Agenda for Children, a nonprofit policy and advocacy group that administers the program.

About 70 percent of the City Seats budget pays for children to attend centers that are ranked as high quality on the state’s rating system. The cut-off for income eligibility on City Seats is higher than in other programs to allow more families access to free child care; at Early Head Start centers, for instance, most families have to be within 100 percent of the poverty level ($31,200 for a family of four).

The rest of City Seats budget goes to improving quality: Child care providers have access to a team that includes a speech pathologist, a pediatrician, and social workers. (Those services are only available for children who attend centers through City Seats, however.) The programs are required to pay their staff at least $15 an hour — on average, Louisiana child care workers made $9.77 an hour in 2020 — and abide by strict teacher-to-child ratios and class sizes, as well as receive professional development from early learning experts, according to Agenda for Children.

Ariann Sentino, owner of Sea Academy child care center in New Orleans, said the center likely wouldn’t exist without programs like City Seats, which pays for child care for low income families. Credit: Ariel Gilreath/The Hechinger Report

Funding from City Seats has allowed Wilcox Academy’s three centers in the city’s North Broad, Central City and Uptown neighborhoods to raise average staff pay to $18 an hour. The Academy’s goal is to raise it even higher — to $25 an hour.

“Teachers deserve it. They deserve to go on vacation, they deserve to buy a home, they deserve to buy a car … This is not a luxury,” said Rochelle Wilcox, the Academy’s founder and director. 

At Sea Academy, a child care center in New Orleans East, every family qualifies for some level of assistance. Without it, families would pay $300 a week for toddlers and $325 for infants to attend the center. City Seats funds 90 of Sea Academy’s 175 — soon to be 250 — child care slots, and pays $1,000 per child per month.

The money from City Seats has helped centers like Sea Academy stay open and even expand. 

“We wouldn’t exist without City Seats because we couldn’t have a business that was sustainable,” said Ariann Sentino, the program’s director. “And if we did, it certainly wouldn’t be high quality.”

Valeria Olivares from the Dallas Morning News contributed reporting.

This story about child care tax was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter

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