Over the past two decades, the child care industry in New Jersey has invested heavily in the latest technologies and infrastructure to serve infants as young as six weeks old.
Heavily regulated by the state Department of Children and Families (DCF), this industry serving 350,000 children in the state now deploys biometric finger entry, electronic daily reports to parents, cameras and silent alarms in high-tech buildings specially designed to care for the most fragile population.
But even though the child care industry has become a specialty, employing more than 87,000 residents across the state, it is under jeopardy because of an ill-conceived bill that would permit public schools to also serve as child care centers for infants as young as six weeks old.
On its face, the bill (A. 5066, S. 3330) appears to be derived from logic. Creating these child care centers could perhaps be an effective use of unused classroom space and generate more money for school districts, it has been argued.
But when you begin to peel this onion, there are layers and layers of legitimate concerns and unanswered questions on behalf of parents, child care centers and taxpayers. Besides destroying an industry that generates about $100 million in property taxes each year, this proposed bill would raise taxes, kill tens of thousands of good-paying, steady jobs and create an alarming vacancy rate amongst real estate in the private sector. Let’s break it down:
Higher Taxes. Sponsors of this legislation are likely unaware of the current specifications of child care centers, which require the latest technologies in modern, newly-constructed buildings. Public schools – especially those that are left empty or under-used – are woefully outdated, with issues of asbestos and lead, and a lack of internal windows. To retrofit these old structures to accommodate babies, with the latest security, would likely require bond referenda statewide, asking voters in each district to spend millions of dollars for this wasteful initiative.
Level of Care. The staff at child care centers are specifically trained to work with babies and toddlers, from changing diapers, to wiping noses, to cuddling. This is not to be administered by government, through a Board of Education. Schools are focused on education; child care centers are experts at child care. Moreover, schools are only open 180 days a year, during school hours. Child care centers accommodate busy parents with extended days and hours throughout the entire year. How can the public schools compete? And why are they being forced?
Lost Jobs. Employment in a child care center is a draw for women, especially those who are new to the workforce or need a reliable job with consistent hours. The child care industry represents six percent of the total female workforce in the state. This proposed legislation is a direct attack on this profession, putting into question the future for these employees who currently enjoy a steady paycheck and a pleasurable work environment.
Vacant Professional Space. Property owners have built 25 to 30 million square feet of buildings to lease as child care centers. There are more than 4,000 of them across the state. Following state guidelines, and the need for precise security features, these buildings have only one use. If these child care centers were forced to close, it would be expensive to retrofit these buildings for another purposes, such as office space. And is there even a need in suburbia for such a use?
Questionable Motives. While this legislation would affect all 565 municipalities in the state, it was only introduced to serve one school, in one town, in southern New Jersey. The bill stems from a parochial issue in Evesham, where one child care center is operating illegally out of Marlton Middle School. It is reckless and irresponsible to create statewide legislation, affecting hundreds of thousands of people, to address self-made problems facing one school district.
The volunteers who run the New Jersey Child Care Association are committed to educating the public about this legislation that would have a drastic impact on their local tax bill without providing any foreseeable benefit. The bill is moving quickly through both the Assembly and Senate with little, if no, discussion about the motives and long-term ramifications of a bill designed to serve this one middle school.
Lawmakers: please start asking the tough questions before it is too late.
Guy Falzarano is Vice President of Government Affairs at the New Jersey Child Care Association.