The Maryland State Department of Education told a nonprofit child care network this week that the department would take control of $9.4 million in state and federal funding — and then abruptly reversed course days later.

The Maryland Family Network, which has managed grant programs that serve child care centers since 1989, was notified Tuesday that the department would distribute funding directly to the centers beginning in July, bypassing the nonprofit. The announcement shocked Maryland Family Network officials, who worried child care providers could lose out on crucial funding and face staff furloughs if they had to navigate an unfamiliar application process on short notice. The nonprofit slammed the sudden shift in a letter delivered Wednesday to the state’s top leadership.

“It is astonishing and, I submit, grossly irresponsible for MSDE [Maryland State Department of Education] to initiate such a momentous change so precipitously, without efforts to engage MFN [Maryland Family Network] and other stakeholders in a measured, orderly transition,” said Laura Weeldreyer, the network’s executive director, in the letter. “This rash move will undermine infrastructure and relationships that have been decades in the making.”

By Thursday afternoon, state education leaders appeared to walk back those plans. Spokesperson Jena Frick said in an email there would be no change to the department’s partnership with the Maryland Family Network.

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“Rest assured, MSDE is not moving forward with any changes stated in their letter,” Frick said in an email. “The Department is continuing to fund these grants and grantees as it has and will continue to explore program ideas, innovations, and refinements with its partners along the way, including the Maryland General Assembly.”

Frick did not respond to questions about why the education department had reversed course.

The dispute comes at a critical juncture for both Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury, whose contract is up for renewal next month, and the state’s child care industry, which is in turmoil. The child care sector has lost about 850 providers — an 11% drop — since 2020, according to network officials.

The Maryland Family Network has long acted as the primary advocacy and public policy organization for the state’s child care providers. It maintains a database of licensed child care centers and employs counselors who help families to locate child care services that fit their needs. And it manages 15 family support centers across the state that provide high-quality child care and services to their families, many of whom are immigrants or refugees. The centers offer child care so that families may pursue educational opportunities including English classes or GED programs, as well as reproductive and mental health support.

Leadership for the education department and the Maryland Family Network have previously clashed over funding.

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Weeldreyer was publicly critical of staffing turnover within the department last month, which she said contributed to delays in $3 million paid out to her organization. She informed the child care networks of her concerns in a memo that the department later labeled as “misinformation.”

Meanwhile, Choudhury has faced complaints in recent months from former employees and education organizations who describe a toxic work culture under his leadership that has contributed to high turnover within the department. Choudhury has previously described his management style as “in the weeds” but said he expects a lot of his staff.

Nancy Grasmick, a former Maryland state school superintendent and a faculty member at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, said the Maryland Family Network’s work is crucial to helping families find high-quality child care in the state through its website. “It is so dependent on an organ like the MFN because of their relationship with all of the child care providers,” she said.

Families can find information about child care providers near them, but also talk to someone at the nonprofit with knowledge of the specific child care centers and the quality of each. “This has depth to it. They have redesigned it several times to be efficient, effective and easy to use,” she said.

In addition, Grasmick said Maryland Family Network has provided professional training for child care entities. “They have changed the trajectory through the affiliated network,” she said.

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Had the state moved forward with its plans to eliminate the nonprofit’s grant responsibilities, the state would have effectively cut the organization’s budget by 22%, Weeldreyer said.

She worried that a state takeover of her nonprofit’s functions with less than two weeks notice would be chaotic. “We have led this work historically and no one is asking us what that looks like, how we do it and what we have learned,” she said.

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