News   |   Sign Up   |   A LEVER FOR SCALE

In California, Parents and Child Care Providers Work Together to Make Meaningful Change

By Aaron Loewenberg

Things are looking up for young children, parents, and child care providers in California thanks to transformational legislative wins over the summer of 2023. These policy achievements did not happen by chance, but were the result of a coordinated effort that was fueled by the grassroots organizing of parents, providers, and thousands of organizations speaking with one voice. The resulting policy wins consist of many different parts, but revolve around two key issues ripe for reform: 1) family fees, meaning the dollar amount paid by families to access subsidized child care, and, 2) the rates paid by the state to providers of subsidized child care.

Federal law requires states to charge families on a sliding scale for subsidized care, but it’s up to the states to decide which families to charge and how much to charge them. California used COVID-19 funds to waive these family fees during the pandemic, but they were set to return in June 2023.

These fees are no minor expense for many of the state’s families. In fact, families had to pay 10 percent of their monthly income, resulting in fees over $600 per month for some. With just a few exceptions, families unable to pay the fee lose access to care. “You have these fees that were causing such burden and stress to the families because as their incomes rise their fees rise. And so even if they were to get a one dollar raise or work more hours, that money would then just get eaten up by higher fees,” says Mary Ignatius, executive director of Parent Voices, a grassroots group that organizes parents throughout the state.

That all changed last summer thanks to a commitment of $56 million from the state’s general fund. Starting October 2023, families earning less than 75 percent of state median income won’t owe any fees at all and any outstanding fees will be waived. The deal also makes clear that no family qualifying for subsidized care will have to pay more than one percent of their income in fees, with a maximum fee of about $61 per month.


The policies secured over the summer related to the rates paid to providers of subsidized care are no less significant. As part of a two-year contract reached between the state and Child Care Providers United, a statewide union that represents over 40,000 family child care providers, the state pledged $600 million over two years for one-time rate increases. Even more important than this one-time funding increase, the state committed to a timeline for reforming how the state pays for subsidized care. Typically, providers have been paid based on outdated market rates from at least five years ago, meaning the rates neither reflect the true cost of care or rising rates of inflation. The new agreement calls for a new and improved reimbursement model to be negotiated and then submitted for federal approval by July 1, likely resulting in a significant pay raise for providers who have been struggling to break even.

The twin wins around parent fees and rate reform are the result of years of advocacy by coalitions of organizations, including the ECE Coalition, a group of over 30 organizations focused on early care and education, and the Children’s Movement, a network of over 5,000 organizations that use their collective voice to push key issues that are important for children. While these coalitions care about a whole host of issues that impact California children, they decided to speak as one voice around the two issues of family fees and rate reform. “When we make too many policy or funding proposals the Legislature and administration lose focus, as opposed to when the coalition proposes one or two significant improvements,” says Dion Aroner, a former State Assemblywoman who has served as a consultant to several California-based unions.

The coalitions made a strategic decision to focus on these two main issues because the timing finally seemed right. “It was the best window that we had in about a decade and so that’s why we leaned in very assertively, because we saw that this was the best opportunity we were going to get,” says Stacy Lee, chief learning officer and senior managing director of early childhood at Children Now, a California-based research, policy development, and advocacy organization.

Grassroots organizing that empowered parents and providers and emphasized their common interests was also a key to success. “We packed every room. Unions, parent voices, children’s organizations, providers, everyone showed up, and they turned out and everyone had the same talking points,” says Lee. And rather than competing against each other, parents and providers worked together to achieve their common goals. “When we were showing up for the union, the union was saying, ‘We want family fee reform,’ and then when the parents were showing up for the union, the parents were saying, ‘We want our providers to be paid well.’ That intentionality was very deliberate and authentic. It was really how parents and providers felt about each other,” adds Ignatius.

In recounting the keys to their recent successes, organizers also emphasized the importance of having legislators hear directly and repeatedly from parents and providers. Rather than being used as occasional storytellers at press conferences, providers and parents were integrated from the beginning as part of the effort to win permanent change around family fee reduction and rate reform.

As for advice for other state advocates looking to accomplish similar wins, Ignatius emphasizes the importance of focusing on grassroots organizing: “Start investing and supporting strong grassroots organizing and engagement….We have really well-intentioned, meaningful advocates and I would challenge them to speak directly to the parents and providers and ask them what they want.”

Stay in the loop by joining the Alliance news and invitations list: