BY CINDY GERLACH
Historically low unemployment rates in Tippecanoe County should mean that most people who are searching for work have multiple opportunities to return to the workforce. There are, however, other factors that might keep someone from taking the job of their dreams: child care.
And with chronically understaffed businesses, employers feel the pinch every bit as much as parents.
Openings for children can be difficult to find, says Tammey Lindblom, co-CEO of Right Steps Child Development Centers. In Tippecanoe County, there are only 5,604 openings in regulated child care centers for children from birth to age 5. And that means there is a shortage of high-quality programs.
In Tippecanoe County, there are 117 regulated child care programs, says Grant Britzke, County Engagement Specialist for the Child Care Resource Network, a regional child care coalition builder and advocacy group. With more than 11,800 children under the age of 5, many parents are not able to find care for their children.
“Only 64 percent of those children can access a regulated program,” says Britzke. And only 3,798 of the available spots are considered high quality.
Needs are further complicated by non-traditional working hours; of the child care agencies in this county, only 11 offer overnight care and only four or five are staffed over the weekend. And to further complicate matters, staffing is difficult to find, particularly for those non-traditional hours.
The bottom line?
“For Tippecanoe County, we know we don’t have enough spaces,” Lindblom says.
However, “There’s overwhelming support for child care. Over 60 to 70 percent of the population is in support of policies that support child care access and affordability,” Britzke says. And there are conversations happening, he says.
In Tippecanoe County, there are people looking at early childhood initiatives, looking to address child care capacity and the growing workforce, with the understanding that child care plays a role in economic development. In May, Right Steps co-CEO Victoria Matney addressed Greater Lafayette Commerce on child care, presenting a proposal on a $14 million project that would, early on, offer care for 206 children, from birth to age 5, during traditional hours, and care would also be offered for second and third shifts. The proposed center would be located on an eight-acre site, thus offering room for expansion.
Matney says that Right Steps has conducted a feasibility study for the project and is in the process of identifying and adding partners who can contribute to making the project a reality.
“We have been actively engaging with the community by organizing several meetings to gather input and feedback regarding the project. These community meetings have been instrumental in shaping our approach and ensuring that we align with the needs and expectations of the local residents,” she says.
“Additionally, we have been meeting with local employers to assess their interest and willingness to invest in the project. We are pleased with the level of interest and engagement we have received thus far, and we are confident in the potential impact this project can have on the community.”
High-quality child care
What defines high-quality child care? Organizations that get this rating observe health and safety practices (first aid/CPR, child development, nutrition, cleaning/sanitation and universal precautions), observe proper ratios for children to caregivers, and have staff who meet proper education and training qualifications.
Such centers will typically have limited screen time, age-appropriate (and approved for safety) toys and equipment, and offer outside time; children are observed to make sure they are meeting developmental milestones and get age-appropriate, individualized developmental support.
At Right Steps, the goals are to “provide safe, consistent, nurturing child care that prepares each child for a lifetime of learning and success,” according to its literature. It supports healthy habits for children through nutrition, and it focuses on child development and early childhood education with its care.
The steps necessary to become a high-quality program are defined by Indiana’s Paths to QUALITY Rating System, which is a tool parents can use to see how each center fares. Accredited program meet the highest standards of care.
Many of these benchmarks on what is an appropriate environment have changed over the years. Playground equipment that was deemed “ideal” 25 years ago is not necessarily considered a best practice today.
“The trend is toward a natural environment,” Britzke says. “It’s more about the quality.”
Meeting community needs
For many communities, a focus on high-quality child care serves to meet multiple needs. From an educational standpoint, early childhood education benefits all children; making more child care centers that can help meet those needs for children will have long-term benefits, as studies show consistently that children who have early access to high-quality care perform better in school, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Studies show that with access to high-quality early childhood education:
- It can generate up to $7.30 per dollar invested
- Labor productivity is improved, with parents missing fewer days of work
- Homebuyers are attracted to an area
- Grade retention is reduced and school systems save money
- Rates of incarceration are reduced; there are lower rates for violent crimes and a reduced likelihood of receiving government assistance. (Source: First Five Years Fund)
Availability of child care is also seen as an economic issue, says Britzke.
“You can’t go to work if you don’t have good child care,” he says.
And it’s critical for communities that wish to attract both employers and young people, says Lindblom. As people are evaluating jobs and the prospect of relocation, child care is one of many factors to consider.
“They’ll choose places that have that child care component,” she says. “Studies consistently show that children perform better in school if they’ve had better early education.”
Britzke and Lindblom stress that this is a bipartisan issue. “We are seeing a strong will to collaborate in each county and many are coming to the table with solutions.”
“Even though it’s complicated and there’s a lot to work out, I’ve never heard this much conversation about child care,” Britzke says. “It doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s good that we’re all talking about it.”
Britzke is the coordinator of the regional program Supporting Our Families, a Greater Lafayette READI funded activity that will add 430 additional child care seats in the Greater Lafayette Region. The program will build Child Care Coalitions in each of the five counties in the READI region (Benton, Fountain, Tippecanoe, Warren and White), consisting of business, industry, child care centers and community leaders, to build support for solutions that increase child care capacity in each county. Supporting Our Families also will award micro-grants to child care centers to meet high-quality standards.
What can parents do?
Parents should know to get on a waiting list early – as soon as they know they might need care, especially for infants and toddlers, where there are the least spots.
“Parents don’t always understand how important it is to get on a wait list,” Lindblom says. “We have families with one child at one center and one at another to get those children in.”
And these programs are expensive. Care for infants and toddlers – where the ratio of adults to children is much higher – can cost more than $300 a week, even on a sliding scale. And this, Lindblom says, has a gap in actual costs. With grants and United Way funding they are able to bridge that gap. But they are always looking for ways to generate other funding.
Britzke is optimistic that, with conversations starting, parents and children will get the care they so desperately need.
“Ideally, what we’d like to have happen is that the child care offerings are so robust that each parent can choose what works best for their families,” he says. “Parents are currently sacrificing quality for the sake of a program that meets their work hours.” ★
In Tippecanoe County, there are 117 regulated child care programs. With more than 11,800 children under the age of 5, many parents are not able to find care for their children.
“Only 64 percent of those children can access a regulated program. And only 3,798 of the available spots are considered high quality.” — Grant Britzke, County Engagement Specialist for the Child Care Resource Network.