In the midst of running her first Iowa Senate campaign, Deb VanderGaast had another big life change to deal with: Closing Tipton Adaptive Daycare, her disability-friendly daycare of 17 years.
VanderGaast, a 54-year-old Tipton resident, talked about the ways she’d improve the lot of educators and childcare providers were she to be elected. As she spoke, she sorted toys from the daycare to sell off.
“It shouldn’t be happening,” she said of her daycare’s closure, one of the few rural facilities built to serve families of children who have disabilities.
Housed in the former Moose Lodge, VanderGaast had to take out big loans to gut the place to rid it of mold, get the pipes and the electricity back up to code, and built multiple accessible classrooms for 70-some infants and children. She even designed the adaptive playground out back, which she said, voice cracking, the Area Education Agency told her was one of the best in Iowa.
“It was beautiful. Practically perfect,” VanderGaast said. “And it’s going bankrupt.”
The problems with finding child care in rural Iowa, just as around the country, are multiple:
- Child care is expensive for parents, sometimes prohibitively so for working-class families.
- Because of that, providers such as VanderGaast keep their costs to parents down—VanderGaast says she’s making barely a 1% profit margin, similar to daycares around the country.
- And because of that, childcare teachers are paid some of the lowest wages for their work, sometimes making minimum wage, which has been $7.25 an hour in Iowa since 2009.
Maybe no candidate knows the intricacies of child care quite like VanderGaast, who was even profiled in Time Magazine as an example of the nation’s rural child care crisis.
A former nurse and longtime child-care provider, VanderGaast built her in-home disability-focused daycare after her own children faced issues finding quality care. After her children grew older, she wanted to quit on that daycare, but she couldn’t say “no” to distraught parents who had nowhere else to turn for specialty childcare. So she figured out a way to open her own center to help even more rural parents who had no options for their disabled children. Now, it’s all gone.
But she’s not giving up. Instead, she wants to take her example to the Iowa Senate, representing the new District 41, which includes rural eastern Iowa towns such as Tipton, Walcott, West Liberty, Durant, and parts of Davenport. VanderGaast said child care, and education as a whole, are her big priorities.
“Too often our leaders only care about money, not people,” VanderGaast said. “They wanna see someone like me, who’s gonna care about them, who’s not afraid to take a political risk. I’d rather lose a campaign than lose my values.”
Child care in crisis
It’s not as if Iowa Republicans don’t see the problem.
“Over the past five years, Iowa has lost 33% of its child care businesses and the state is short 350,000 child care slots for children younger than 12 years old,” Gov. Kim Reynolds’ website notes in a section titled “Confronting Iowa’s Child Care Crisis.” “Twenty-three percent of Iowans live in child care deserts, areas with shortages of licensed providers.”
It’s their solutions that irk VanderGaast: Laws like letting even-younger workers supervise more children, financing new centers that sit empty for a lack of employees, and paltry grants as “solutions” in recent years.
After those attempts in the last sessions, VanderGaast said she’s convinced Republicans in the state legislature have no idea how to help providers such as her.
“I’m losing $7,000 a month,” she said. “I don’t think any one of (the legislators) could run a business with the budgets we have to work with.”
Her solution is bolder: A payroll tax on the state’s employers that would help fund salaries to attract more child-care teachers and subsidize parents to better afford child care. Employers, she said, are the biggest beneficiaries to child care, because it means parents won’t have to choose between working and watching their children.
VanderGaast envisions the tax as a percentage of employers’ payroll, which she believes “spreads the burden out fairly.” She doesn’t yet know how much it would need to raise to effectively solve the crisis.
“I know it isn’t the magic bullet, but it is magic for those families that are struggling,” VanderGaast said.
Schools, teachers struggling too
VanderGaast said she backs Democratic candidate for governor Deidre DeJear’s platform on education.
She especially said she liked the “minimum” 4% supplemental state aid increase to public schools, restoring collective bargaining, and otherwise not treating teachers “like criminals with a ‘sinister agenda,’” borrowing the phrase State Sen. Jake Chapman used to disparage teachers last year.
“That is flat-out hostile,” she said of Chapman’s comments. “You’re accusing them of things when these are people who truly love what they do, who buy supplies out of their own pocket, who stay after school to help a kid without pay … Nobody wants to work in those conditions.”
Underinvesting in schools is a problem, but VanderGaast said the Republicans disparaging teachers and “politicizing the curriculum” is the icing on the cake.
“It’s a cultural problem that is being reinforced and cultivated by our legislators because it makes good soundbites and riles up your base,” she said. “But it also gets us no teachers.”
Caring for people
“I’m a caregiver, nurse, child care provider, and advocate because I care for people. And I want to take that caring to our state government,” she said.
But it’s not, she said, her “career goal” to be in elected office for long. She just wants to bring a different voice to a Statehouse that she says has left working folks behind.
“I’ve had desperate parents who said, ‘My power’s going to get shut off—what do I do?'” VanderGaast said. “These people work two jobs and still can’t put food on the table. Stop blaming them and figure out why on Earth our system does this to people.”
By Amie Rivers
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