For child care providers like Carolina Reyes, last year was an administrative nightmare.

Her day care, Arco Iris Bilingual Children’s Center in Laurel, serves some of the 16,900 families who rely on state-funded scholarships to afford child care. The vouchers were often paid late, Reyes said, leaving providers fronting bills, sometimes on credit cards. Some of the small businesses struggled to stay open.

“There are providers who legitimately closed, especially as there are many in Baltimore City and other parts of the state that basically only serve kids who are getting scholarships and don’t have private-paying families,” said Laura Weeldreyer, the executive director of Maryland Family Network, a nonprofit advocacy group for child care policies.

Thanks to a series of improvements at the Maryland State Department of Education and legislation that went into effect this summer, the bureaucratic burden is starting to ease. The changes, including paying providers in advance, fast-tracking child care scholarship applications and increasing family income eligibility caps, are part of a national effort to improve the quality of child care, education officials say.

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Providers and advocates praised the solutions and say they’re much needed as the child care industry recovers from the pandemic. But Reyes and others still face challenges communicating with the department, an issue education officials say they’re working to fix.

“New policies come with new problems,” said Justin Dayhoff, the assistant state superintendent in the education department’s division of financial planning. “We see this as a beginning, not an end.”

Maryland’s goal is also to increase the number of families applying for and using child care scholarships. Dayhoff said only about 10% of eligible families are using the program now, but with the addition of an online family portal that launched at the end of January, the number of family applicants have skyrocketed.

Cook said that about 25,000 families have already created family portal accounts. In July, 2,400 families applied for scholarships, compared to 1,600 families who applied last July.

Weeldreyer said she was impressed by the changes. The education department is “really implementing some very progressive reforms to this program, and I give them a ton of credit.”

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State legislation enacted in July also requires providers to be paid based on the number of children enrolled in a child care program and replaces its previous attendance-based payment system, which Reyes said was one way she lost money.

“You need to pay rent. You need to pay salaries. You need to pay all the other costs of having a business,” she said.

Weeldreyer echoed Reyes’ concerns: “Your fixed costs don’t change based on attendance,” she said. “We still pay teachers when kids are absent.”

More changes rolled out on July 1 include a presumptive eligibility program, which means the state will assume that a child care scholarship applicant is eligible for the subsidy immediately and begin reimbursing a provider for that child. According to Dayhoff, this change replaces the previous application process that used to take an average of 33 days and left kids and families without proper care as they waited for approval. Now, he said, the turnaround time is just over three days.

“They are going to be able to get an initial approval from the state within 72 hours, as opposed to months to get through awful bureaucratic language with many stops and starts,” Weeldreyer said. “The process, from the parent’s point of view, is much better.”

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In the new system, a child can receive a scholarship and their provider can receive a reimbursement to immediately attend programming. The state department then has 60 days to approve or deny the application, and if approved, the child’s family can receive a full 52-week scholarship. If the application is denied, the provider does not need to return any of the scholarship money to the state.

It’s a far cry from the turmoil of late compensation and lack of communication from the state’s education department last year that caused a rift of mistrust among child care providers who rely on the department to operate their businesses.

They’ve also struggled to recruit, retain and adequately pay qualified staff in recent years. The number of licensed child care providers in Maryland fell by nearly 900 providers, or 11%, between January 2020 and March 2022, accounting for about 14,000 fewer slots for young children.

The education department also announced plans to launch two online portals, one for parents and another for providers, in English and Spanish. The parent portal was launched at the end of January and allows families to submit all documentation required for child care scholarships. Until this point, Dayhoff said, “it was an entirely paper process. There are all sorts of problems with that. It could get lost in the mail. You could forget documents.”

The provider portal is expected to be available in a few weeks. Providers will be able to use their portal to submit invoices, confirm child attendance and handle licensing.

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The provider portal will hopefully address what providers like Reyes and Imani-Angela Rose, the executive director and co-owner of Joshua Place, say are the biggest remaining challenges: unresponsive customer service and unclear invoices.

“The invoices are not detailed, so we don’t know who we’re getting paid for and the rate,” said Rose. “We have a lump sum we don’t know how to break down, and it’s important to know that.” It’s important as business owners, she said, to know exactly what finances you have coming in and when.

Reyes said that deciphering her invoices is “very confusing.” She receives two different kinds, a detailed invoice report and a register and license invoice, which arrive at unpredictable intervals.

Her husband, Daniel Reyes, called his lengthy process for deciphering invoices “completely Byzantine.”

“We have to do this 19th-century type of bookkeeping to compare this paper with that paper with this database,” he said. “That takes time away from Carolina’s work, and mine as well.”

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Dayhoff said that providers, who currently need to call the customer service line to see more detailed billing information, will be able to get that information through the online portal.

Cook said that the department will also offer video tutorials on how to use the provider portal once it is released.

Both Reyes and Rose said they’ve had little luck when calling the customer service line for providers, and have often waited on hold for over 40 minutes — and then been told to email their inquiries.

“It’s very hard to reach a person with a question,” Rose said. “They prefer email, which you might hear back from, but it causes more questions about what you were initially concerned about and not detailed enough to address your specific needs.”

Cook said that some complicated family situations need extensive research before staff can provide answers. Quick response times and good customer service, she said, is something “we emphasize a lot in trainings. We’re really trying to decrease the time to resolution on any issues that are brought up by either families or child care providers.”

Some of the department’s efforts to improve customer service include adding two Spanish-speaking members to their resolution team, daily training and review of calls, and extending customer service hours.