A teacher at Vista Montessori School in Boise interacts with children at the center. (courtesy of Melissa Buck)
Idaho is at a turning point. The pandemic brought to a head the state’s child care crisis.
U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh told the Idaho Capital Sun last week that President Joe Biden has a plan to help — spending $225 billion to restabilize child care in the U.S., as part of a $1.8 trillion plan that focuses on aid for families and childhood education.
But a fight in the 2021 Idaho Legislature over federal child care grants suggests that, if the plan becomes reality, some Idaho lawmakers may resist federal funds to broaden access to child care and early childhood education.
Before the pandemic, Idaho’s child care industry had high turnover. Child care providers struggled to hire and retain workers even at above-minimum-wage pay rates, while parents could not afford to spend more on child care. Some facilities had waiting lists months long.
Then came the pandemic. School went virtual. Child care workers, and parents, were laid off and furloughed. Some child care workers found new jobs. Some parents began working from home or left the workforce altogether.
Now, the rate of Idahoans who are unemployed and looking for work is at a low 3.1%, but the new pandemic-shaped economy has created fierce competition for workers in lower-paying industries.
What is the plan to help Idaho families and Idaho’s economy?
“We certainly have a long way to go, but the Biden administration has a plan,” Walsh said during a conference call with reporters last week.
But those plans, not yet introduced as federal legislation, have a ways to go before becoming reality.
Funded through taxes on higher-income Americans, the American Families Plan would need to survive the politics of Congress. The plan also has been criticized as missing the mark and running into financial challenges.
“While these reforms are commendable, they are complicated and may miss an opportunity to rethink what goals we are trying to accomplish with these tax credits, and how best to achieve them,” analysts from The Brookings Institution wrote last month. “First, three different tax credits leave it up to families to navigate a bewildering set of eligibility rules and benefits. Second, they come with a very high price tag that may not be fiscally sustainable over the longer run without major and politically fraught tax increases. Third, if we are going to spend this much money, we should think carefully about what it will do — not just to reduce child poverty in the short-run, but to expand opportunity and social mobility in the longer run.”
Child care funding in Idaho faces political hurdles
Without child care, some Idaho parents may not be able to return to the workforce or rebuild their small businesses and self-employed jobs.
Between September 2020 and April 2021, more than 200 child care centers across Idaho closed, the Idaho Capital Sun previously reported.
Walsh pointed to the American Rescue Plan, which provided $39 billion for child care in the U.S. — including $34 million for Idaho.
Some Idaho lawmakers didn’t like that, though.
The Idaho House of Representatives this year voted down a $200 million Idaho Department of Health and Welfare budget bill, with some lawmakers voicing concerns about the federal funds.
Some Idaho Republican politicians have seized on unproven claims that Idaho schools are indoctrinating students with “critical race theory,” as young as infancy.
“The money will be used for a federal program to indoctrinate children from birth to 5 with critical race theory and social justice,” Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, alleged in an “action alert” bulletin about the federal funds.
According to previous Idaho Capital Sun reporting, other legislators were concerned about taking a “sizable amount of money” from the federal government and questioned how many providers would apply for grants.
“It’s really important for our low-income families to be able to return to the workforce,” Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, said at the time, according to the Idaho Press. “We can’t afford to lose any more of those child care facilities. … This has really become probably the tightest sticking point in the state, really, for our state workforce to return to work.”
Child care centers across the Treasure Valley closed for a day in protest, and the Legislature eventually approved the funds.
What exactly would the American Families Plan mean for Idaho?
“This is a big issue,” said Walsh, who previously served as mayor of Boston. “In my time as mayor, at the beginning of the pandemic, many child care facilities were reimbursed at 100%. Even though they weren’t open, they were paying workers. But then, as they began to reopen, the childcare facility … didn’t have 100% occupancy, yet they were expected to operate at 100% capacity.”
He said the American Families Plan, in concert with a separate American Jobs Plan also proposed by the Biden White House, would help to repair and improve child care access in Idaho.
The American Families Plan would:
- Subsidize the cost of child care for low- and middle-income families, based on a sliding scale for costs. “For the most hard-pressed working families, child care costs for their young children would be fully covered,” a summary of the plan says. Families that earn 150% of Idaho’s median income — based on 2019 household income data, that’s about $99,000 — would pay no more than 7% of their income for child care for children under 5.
- Give child care providers funding to pay for “the true cost of quality early childhood care and education,” according to the plan summary.
- Raise the minimum wage for child care workers to $15 an hour. The typical child care worker in the U.S. made about $12.24 an hour last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median hourly wage in Idaho was $11.73, according to the bureau.
- Support universal kindergarten and universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds — education that isn’t offered statewide in Idaho. “And again, that helps families again with the ability to not have to pay child care upfront (in order to) get the kids into school,” Walsh said.
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