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HELENA - Connie Sturgis runs a child care center in Sidney. About 65 percent of her kids are children of the working poor who attend her educational and enrichment center only because their parents get government help with their bill.

As it stands, Sturgis said, it's a juggle to keep the doors open. Staff members often quit for higher-paid jobs at Pizza Hut or McDonald's.

But if the 2009 Legislature follows through on a suggestion by Gov. Brian Schweitzer to freeze the amount of money the state pays her and day care owners around the state to care for such children, she may be looking at two hard choices: Close her doors or quit taking the children of the working poor.

"I'm not sure I can stay open," she said last week in an interview with the Gazette State Bureau. "I am barely making it with what we get."

Sturgis is one of a host of day care providers, parents and others who plan to be in Helena today to urge lawmakers not to freeze the already low reimbursement rates they get from the state to care for and educate children as part of the federal-state Best Beginnings Scholarship Program.

Some child care providers have already quit accepting such kids because they can't keep their doors open with what the state pays them, and they can't afford to ask full-paying parents to pay more, said Ann Lynch, owner of Creative Horizons Child Care in Helena.

"It's probably just enough to break even," she said, of the state's current reimbursement rate. But if that rate is frozen and other costs go up, Lynch predicted that some centers will close. Already, she said, there is a shortage of child care, particularly for children younger than 2.

The Best Beginnings Scholarship Program helps working families who make up to 150 percent of the federal poverty limit. For a family of three, that's $26,400, based on the federal 2008 poverty rate.

The program gets its money from the federal government and Montana's general fund, or checking account. Families enrolled in the program must be working or going to school, said Jamie Palagi, chief of the Early Childhood Services Bureau in the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, which runs the program. Enrolled families must pay a co-pay toward their child care costs that is set by their income level. The state then makes up the difference to a level that is 75 percent of the average child care cost in their communities.

Those costs vary by town. In Missoula, that rate is $28.10 a day for children younger than 2 and $26.50 for those older than 2. In Butte, the rate is $23 daily for infants up to age 2 and $22 for older children. In Helena, the rate is $28 a day for infants and $24 a day for older children. In Billings, the rate is $30.10 for infants and $26 a day for older children.

That's $550 to $750 a month.

Initially, said Christy Hall Larson, a representative of Montana Advocates for Children, an umbrella group of five early childhood education groups in the state, Schweitzer included assessing and raising the state's child care reimbursement rate in the budget presented to lawmakers.

Later, Schweitzer froze the rate, along with the rate the state pays to doctors who see people enrolled in Medicaid and other state assistance programs. The move was part of Schweitzer's effort to shore up the budget without cutting programs as the state and national economic situations deteriorated.

But child care workers are not the same as doctors or psychiatrists, Hall Larson said. Obviously, doctors have an important job, she said.

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"But we're talking about people who barely make a livable wage," she said.

Almost none get benefits.

Plus, she said, quality early childhood care and education are crucial to the future success of the child, his or her family, and, ultimately, society.

Hall Larson referred to a study by the Minneapolis branch of the Federal Reserve that concluded "you could not get a better investment than investing in children," she said.

In Sturgis' community, the benefits are close to the bone: Without child care, she said, many single parents can't work. If they can't work, they're on welfare. Then the state isn't saving any money.

"This would be devastating to the economics of the whole community," she said. "I don't think in the long run, you'd be saving any money."

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