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A child care shortage creates years-long waiting lists. But here’s where change is afoot

A severe child care shortage across the state is stressing parents and hurting the bottom lines of businesses. In Finney County, located in a region where the situation is particularly acute, a coalition involving business and government is attempting to build a network that would chip away at a deficit of more than 700 child care slots. But local officials there and elsewhere lack any clear roadmap for unraveling a web of complex, multifaceted and often ‘invisible’ challenges.

Hyperbolic as they may sound, these words and others like them pop up repeatedly in discussions among parents, experts and elected officials as they describe the effects of a severe statewide child care shortage.

“We have young families where they’re not having kids anymore because there’s no day care available,” says Ashlee Bevan, program director at Stafford County Economic Development.

“We can’t get teachers to come work at our school,” says Robyn Tokoi, director of Wichita County Economic Development. “We can’t get nurses to work at our hospital, because we don’t have day care for their children.”

“Kids get day care in other towns and continue their schooling there, and that’s where we’re really hurting,” says Kay Haffner of the Grainfield Community Development Committee.

Only three of Kansas’ 105 counties meet or exceed the need for child care, according to Child Care Aware of Kansas, a nonprofit referral service that reports child care supply and demand. More than a third fulfill only half the demand or less. According to 2018 data, more than 68,000 Kansas children younger than 6 could be affected.

The problem straddles demographic, geographic and financial divides. It affects brain development and businesses’ bottom lines. The matrix of problems driving the child care shortage goes deep, and there’s “no cookie-cutter answer,” says Tanya Koehn of Child Care Aware.

Leaders in places such as Garden City see the shortage as an opportunity to overhaul a fractious system by forging local networks that provide more support to providers, ensure them a living wage and keep care affordable for parents. 

“We really have to tell the story,” says Lona DuVall, president and CEO of the Finney County Economic Development Corp.

The story lives in the dizzying details of Jennifer Cunningham’s search for child care – which reflects a challenge thousands of Kansas parents could recite. The Garden City assistant city manager says she “called endless in-home providers” in the growing town of about 31,000 people when the friend who had been watching her 1-year-old moved away. Most providers told her they had no openings for infants.

Another friend reluctantly offered to enter the child care field but worried about the investment, Cunningham says. So Cunningham spent a month soliciting donations, and the friend earned her license. But after Cunningham had another baby, her provider felt squeezed by strict regulations, Cunningham says, and gave notice that she wanted to quit. An inspector had written her up for things like cleaning up dishes after putting the children down for naps, instead of right after lunch.

All told, Cunningham and her family navigated three in-home day cares – one in the neighboring town of Holcomb – and a nanny. She compensated for the daily juggling act by working through lunch and staying late at the office. Craving the stability of center-based care, she added her kids to a waiting list 50-some names long at the local Community Day Care Center, now the only child care center in town following the recent closure of a second location. Her kids finally enrolled there in August.

Even with a capacity of 97 children, says director Monique Lopez, infants often wait nine to 12 months for a spot. Older kids can wait years.

“Call as soon as you find out you’re pregnant,” Lopez says.

Studies show that the most crucial time for developing brains is in infancy and early childhood. It’s then that interactions with caregivers spur babies to form neural pathways that last a lifetime, according to experts at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. Neglectful or unsafe situations disrupt the process.

But what if parents don’t have a choice? What about the teacher in Leoti who has no options other than to send her child to work with grandma, where he sits behind a baby gate? Or the dad who works nights and naps during the day while the kids entertain themselves?

(The Journal hosted a launch event for the “heaviest lifts” edition on Oct. 15. Watch video of the event here: https://business.facebook.com/kansasleadershipcenter/videos/693606681150420/.)

Local and state leaders are beginning to view child care – ranging from in-home operations to large child care centers – as vital infrastructure in a modern society, along the lines of electricity, roads and sewers.

“This is your future workforce right here,” says Nicole Hahn, vice president of community development for Finney County Economic Development. “Don’t you want them to have a quality education from an early age?”

In Kansas, the infrastructure is only beginning to gel. One emerging vision is the proposed Finney County Childcare and Early Learning Network, a response to a Garden City-area shortage of more than 700 child care slots. The network’s first move would be the creation of a day care center for 59 children, to be run by a director who also oversees the network. The network model would lift barriers to training in remote areas, provide regulatory support, help day care teachers develop curricula, and maintain a list of substitutes – a crucial connection for in-home providers who often work alone.

Led by DuVall, who happens to hold an associate’s degree in early childhood education, the Finney County Economic Development team has identified a vacant former nursing home as the location for their first early learning center. The building would be shared with a proposed maker space and is expected to cost $600,000 to purchase and renovate. The building already meets the regulation that requires rooms to have private bathrooms. Plus, there’s green space for a playground.

With such a large investment, leaders are grappling with new questions: What role does government play in establishing systems to address the child care shortage? Are the gatekeepers elected leaders, business owners, local residents or a combination of the three?

DuVall approached the Garden City Commission about funding, first requesting a grant, a loan or a combination of the two from an economic-development fund shared by the City Commission and the Finney County Commission. City commissioners rejected the idea of a grant but endorsed a loan, despite Garden City Commissioner Troy Unruh’s lone no vote.

“I know it’s a workforce development issue, and I’m coming to terms with what part our city government needs to play into it,” Unruh says. “I’m trying to walk a line in saying, ‘Do we have a role, and what does that look like?’”

It turns out that the public loan won’t be needed. DuVall says a private investment group has offered to purchase the building, pay for renovations and lease the building back to the network.

Unruh says he supports the creation of the network, but he thinks parents would prefer in-home providers to early learning centers because of the larger risk of illness, more institutional feel and sometimes higher enrollment fees.

“If there’s a way to help the state get more of those (in-home day cares), I think that’s really smart,” Unruh says.

One of the barriers for in-home providers is stringent licensing rules, says Jenette Turpin, who teaches early childhood education as a career pathway at Garden City High School. Years ago, she wanted to offer day care in her home, but regulatory roadblocks almost prevented her from opening. Because her basement included a workshop with tools near an exit, a licensing surveyor deemed the exit – and therefore the basement – unsafe. So Turpin’s then-4-year-old daughter could not go into her basement bedroom during the 11 hours each day Turpin was open. If Turpin’s mother or father wanted to visit for more than two days, they had to leave the area during business hours or undergo all the training required to provide care.

Kansas has undergone intense change with regard to child care regulations in the last decade, says Amanda Petersen, director of early childhood for the state Department of Education.

  • Jennifer Cunningham, Garden City's assistant city manager, drops off her son Brodie at day care.
    Jennifer Cunningham has struggled to find child care for her son, Brodie.

Before 2010, child care providers in Kansas had two options for operating legally: as a registered day care or a licensed day care. Following the “registered” option, a provider would be required to pass inspections but did not have to undergo training to obtain a license. DuVall says many registered day care providers were “neighborhood grandmas” who kept family members and a few extra kids.

The registered day care option disappeared with the 2010 passage of Lexie’s Law, named in honor of 13-month-old Lexie Engelman, who died from injuries received at a Johnson County day care in 2004. The law adhered to industry best practices and shot Kansas from 46th for child care safety to the top five nationwide, according to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.

In-home day cares, Turpin says, can offer an “awesome environment for kids.” But providers, who often work 12-hour days, five days a week, need support. Turpin is advising the network as it develops, along with a council of experts she assembled to help her design curriculum for her program at the high school.

Unruh has another concern. He says he doesn’t think the city needs to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to renovate a building when another child care center is ready and waiting for kids across town.

That center – licensed for 89 children – has been waiting to open for two years since it was completed by Garden City’s Church of the Nazarene. Pastor Tim Fields says he can’t find a director to run it. Because of a dearth of local degree programs in recent years, he says, Garden City has few professionals qualified to run a large child care center.

Enter the Finney County Childcare and Early Learning Network, which recently opened conversations with Garden City Community College. The college agreed to add a three-pronged program to meet the need, including online certification and certification renewal courses to become available next spring, followed in the fall of 2020 with an associate of science in education, specializing in early childhood, designed to be transferable to a four-year program. Longer term, the college is looking to partner with universities to offer higher-level early childhood courses on its campus, as well as potentially hosting an on-campus day care where students could gain practical experience.

“We see it both as a short-term solution but also a longer term pathway to economic growth in Finney County,” says Marc Malone, vice president for instruction.

Pastor Fields doesn’t have years to wait for students to complete their degrees. Aside from Wednesday night children’s ministries and Sunday school, his classrooms sit empty, and the toddler-sized train stays idle.

“If you don’t have a lot of fish in the pond, it’s pretty hard catching,” Fields says.

To catch a fish, you also need bait, which in job parlance means healthy salaries. Fields has pledged not to outprice parents, who are used to a going rate, he says, of no more than $145 per week. Add in state-mandated ratios starting at one teacher per three infants, and spreadsheets start to dictate low salaries. One home day care provider told Fields she could make $600 more a week at home than she could working for the church.

“If you had the qualifications to be a director, you could go to work for the local school system and they would start you at $13,000 more a year with benefits,” Fields says.

The child care network has a plan for that, too. The proposal calls for paying early childhood teachers what they would make in a school district, DuVall says. The initial center would charge $160 per week for infants.

Their formula is creating partnerships that shift some of the overhead away from the child care provider. For example, as the second-largest employer in Finney County, the Garden City School District has a stake in providing access to child care. DuVall and her team have approached the school board with ideas for how the district could help facilitate it. Options include providing land or vacant space in a school building, sharing meals at cost, and providing custodial care and utilities.

Superintendent Steve Karlin says he knows of teachers who have left the district after becoming parents and failing to find child care.

 

Garden City High School sophomore Aaliyah Mendez gets an idea of what pregnancy can be like at a school open house with child care development teacher Jenette Turpin. In addition to her teaching duties, Turpin works with the Finney County Economic Development Corp. in its pursuit of a child care network.

 

“As these pieces fall into place and we improve the child care situation, that will definitely become a selling point that we include in our recruiting,” Karlin says.

Turpin points out another boon: The school district’s involvement could aid the district’s accreditation process.

“If the school district could support – not run – and partner with early childhood education, that would meet their standards for kindergarten readiness,” Turpin says.

The team in Finney County has had to be creative, because no such child care network exists in Kansas. They’re working on a toolkit to help other communities replicate the process.

Without a template to follow, says Nick Poels, executive director of Phillips County Economic Development, “we’re piloting ourselves.”

More than 30 leaders and child care experts from around the state – including pastors, school superintendents, county commissioners, an assistant city manager and economic development staff – gathered in Phillipsburg for the Kansas Sampler Foundation’s “Childcare Do-alogue” in August. Most attendees hailed from towns of 2,000 or fewer to tour the new Phillipsburg Child Care Center, a volunteer and community-funded effort that opened in a former convenience store in July. The community raised $850,000 through grants, federal tax credits and pass-the-hat donations, Poels says, saving up to $200,000 by enlisting volunteers to paint, assemble furniture and lay rubber mulch.

The child care shortage “was a problem that everybody knew existed, but nobody was willing to address,” Poels says.

The Phillipsburg center is licensed to accept 55 babies, toddlers and preschoolers. It charges $130 per week – about $30 more than the Phillips County average for all ages, according to Child Care Aware data. With only 22 children enrolled as of August, the center’s workers are making minimum wage as a “starting point,” Poels says.

“It’s their contribution to help us get up and running by taking a minimum-wage job,” Poels says, noting that they plan to raise wages once enrollment stabilizes.

Child care centers aren’t the answer for meeting all of the child care demand, Koehn says, because of the capital required and the years they take to plan and build.

“That’s not going to help us now,” she says.

Businesses are noticing productivity losses because of the shortage. ReadyNation, a bipartisan group of business leaders, estimates that the U.S. is losing $57 billion in productivity each year as parents miss work and stress over child care issues. In August, ReadyNation hosted a roundtable on the topic with U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall in Manhattan.

Experts say businesses should be integral to the solution. Koehn advises them to consider offering child care as an employee benefit. Begin by surveying employees to see what they need, she says. One hospital, she says, opened a small in-home child care that met its workers’ needs.

Another tactic is gathering stakeholders in a room. In McPherson, after a local day care closed abruptly, parents began asking on social media, “Anybody, come take care of my child,” says Lara Vanderhoof, an assistant professor of social work at Tabor College and volunteer for United Way of McPherson County. “We were in a crisis and families didn’t know what to do, because there was nothing available.”

Vanderhoof and other volunteers brought together parents, providers, city officials, business representatives and experts like Koehn. As a result of those meetings, a local day care expanded to a second location.

Would-be child care providers can also start the conversation. Maybe someone wants to open a group day care in a house, DuVall says.

“Do you have a business willing to purchase the house?” DuVall says. “Then you don’t have the cost of renting the home.”

At DuVall’s urging, Western State Bank in Garden City agreed to survey its employees about child care. At least 40% of the bank’s 60 or so Garden City employees have children younger than 5, says Andrea Rosales, the bank’s human resources director. And according to the survey, about 30% of them had missed two to four days of work over the previous year because of child care issues, such as a provider calling in sick, she says.

“It was kind of like boiling a frog,” says bank president Tyler Whitham, whose wife has watched bank employees’ children in a pinch. “It was a problem, but we didn’t notice it until it was pointed out.”

  • Child Care Crisis header

Whitham and the bank’s board are considering options for getting the bank involved in the Childcare and Early Learning Network. One possibility would be for the bank to convert an existing house or building to a group day care with dedicated openings for bank employees’ families. The network would staff and manage the day care.

“I think it’s a dang good idea, and I’m glad somebody has the guts to try something like this,” Whitham says.

  • A survey showing concern in southwest Kansas about child care.

The key is being creative about partnerships  – and persistent, Turpin says. One approach is asking businesses and public entities to extend the services they already provide in order for the child care business to be sustainable, she says.

“I’ve had businesses and public entities say this repeatedly: ‘We don’t want to get in the business of child care,’” Turpin says. “I say it lightheartedly, but I don’t want you to be in the business of child care, either.”

In August the state of Kansas celebrated 100 years of licensed child care. Given Gov. Laura Kelly’s stated commitment to early childhood education, state leaders are working on a strategic plan for early childhood education, says Petersen of the state Department of Education. Kansas is one of 46 states that received $118 million in federal Preschool Development Birth through Five grants, a new program through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education. The program was designed to help states conduct needs assessments that will equip them to try to solve the child care crisis nationwide. The state Board of Education allocated Kansas’ grant of $4.5 million to the University of Kansas Center for Research earlier this year.

Turpin cautions that sweeping statements about how to provide care for young children don’t work, because the needs of every group of children differ.

“Best practices includes the flexibility to do what’s right for those kids,” Turpin says.

DuVall’s not waiting around for well-intentioned authorities to solve the shortage. She says local leaders need to step up now.

“If a solution is designed at the federal or state level,” DuVall says, “odds are very slim it will work for rural communities.”

But those already designing cooperative solutions, including leaders in Garden City and Phillipsburg, agree that they’d like to see streamlining right away with the body that oversees child care in Kansas – the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

Leaders want information about how to fill the gaps in child care, such as how to administer overnight care. That’s a particular concern for Finney County, whose largest employer, Tyson Fresh Meats, ran a large overnight shift before an August fire temporarily halted production at its 3,800-employee beef-packing plant.

Leaders also want consistency from KDHE. Poels, the Phillips County economic development director, held up a printed packet of Kansas regulations, noting that KDHE had updated it three times over the three years Phillipsburg was developing its child care center.

“By the time we finished building, we didn’t actually meet some of the requirements,” he says.

A child care facility must be fully compliant to earn licensing. The first call anyone should make when planning a new early learning business should be to KDHE, says Lori Steelman, director of the department’s early care and youth programs.

“I think sometimes we are perceived as a barrier, but we really want to be a partner in these discussions,” Steelman says.

Turpin sees a direct link between today’s shortage in Kansas and the 2010 change.

“A lot of people dropped out of child care or started providing illegal care,” she says.

What constitutes illegal care? According to KDHE, it’s an unlicensed provider who watches more than two children not related to them for more than 20 hours per week.

“The regulations had to change,” Koehn says. “It’s all for the health and safety of the kids.”

Pastor Tim Fields, here participating in youth night at his Church of the Nazarene in Garden City, laments that the church’s child care center, licensed for 89 children, has never opened because he’s been unable to find a director. The center can’t afford to pay a competitive salary to a person with the necessary qualifications while charging fees that are in line with local child care providers.

Journal Fall edition cover

A version of this article appears in the Fall 2019 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit  https://kansasleadershipcenter.org/store/one-year-subscription-to-the-journal-4-upcoming-issues/.

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