HARRISBURG, Pa. (Erie News Now) – Tuesday, child care advocates and Democratic lawmakers said more funding is needed to address the child care crisis.

Their message for Republicans comes just days before 2022-23 budget deadline. If everything goes according to plan, state lawmakers will agree on a final budget by June 30.

“We have more resources than ever in the history of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Either you care about the children or you don’t. Your economic choice, your policy choice, will reflect your moral commitment. And that’s what this is about,” said State Senator Vincent Hughes (D-Montgomery/Philadelphia). “We have $9.1 billion in budget surplus, we have $2.25 billion in unspent American Rescue Plan funds, we have $2.8 billion in the state’s rainy-day fund,” Hughes added.

Advocates say the crisis is largely driven by a lack of funding and difficulty retaining staff. According to Start Strong PA, over 90 percent of child care programs reported staffing shortages this year. Additionally, there are nearly 7,000 vacant child care staff positions and over 30,000 children that could be served if the programs were fully staffed.

“We have 1,600 child care programs that can’t hire staff because they can’t pay enough to attract the staff,” said Donna Cooper, Executive Director of Children First. “There’re 32,000 children who are not in early childhood programs now. They’re going to start school further behind,” she added.

With the budget deadline just days away, Cooper says patience is running thin.

“We have yet to hear that the leadership in this building has reached agreement on finding a solution to the child care crisis,” said Cooper.

For child care professionals like Tiffany Chavous, the barriers to providing quality education, care and other services are growing. Chavous is the Director of Somerset Early Learning Center in Philadelphia and says staff retention is one of the biggest challenges she faces.

“It’s really difficult,” said Chavous. “When you’re not paying workers a living wage, they’re quick to say, ‘oh, well, I quit.’”

Advocates also say staff shortages are causing more parents to stay at home with their young children instead of returning to work.

“Parents can’t go to work, or they can’t take the job that offers the most hours, or the weekend hours because the child care centers just can’t afford to hire the staff,” said Cooper. “Businesses just can’t find workers and child care centers are businesses too, and they’re closing. So, it’s collapsing. And the state can afford to do this now and make it possible for people to work and kids to get a great future. “We can do better, and now we have to, because the economy’s demanding it,” she added.

Advocates say high quality early learning ensures children have every opportunity to succeed and that adequate funding will have a far-reaching effect.

“They’re going to earn more and they’re going to be less likely to be in trouble because they had a great foundation,” said Cooper.

“The formative years are from birth to five where they expound and they learn the most,” said Shantel Drake-Murray, a grandmother, teacher and child care advocate. “They’re the future. They’re the new society and if we don’t invest in them, what happens? We have those high crime rates, we have those things that happen that could have been controlled and prevented,” added Drake-Murray, who emphasized the need for preventative measures instead of intervening measures during her speech inside the Capitol this morning.

A spokesperson for the House Republican Caucus says they are focused on crafting a budget that fits the needs of Pennsylvanians, using existing funds and fiscal responsibility.