Higher wages for daycare workers. Improved childcare facilities. Additional care for underserved communities, infants and toddlers, and children with disabilities are all items a federal grant would have helped Iowa pay for.
However, Iowa missed its latest chance to address those needs when Gov. Kim Reynolds and the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) passed up a $30 million federal grant for childcare assistance that would have been distributed over three years.
When the state didn’t complete the grant application, it missed out on funding it could use for early childhood services including quality improvement, needs assessments, workforce compensation, recruitment, and retention; and support and direct services for young children.
State Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott (D-West Des Moines) said there seems to be lack of infrastructure in Iowa’s government to tackle the problem.
“I’m talking about leadership at the state level to make sure that we’re finding and accessing all the resources we can,” she said. “It feels like child care has just been relegated to the bottom of the list.”
Trone Garriott serves on the child care advisory committee in the Iowa Legislature. She also serves on the education and human resources committees in the state Senate.
The grant would have supported collaboration for existing systems including child care and family child care providers, Head Start, pre-kindergarten and home visits. It would have covered children from birth up to age 5.
“For years, the governor has been touting that we’re keeping costs at the state level the same. So most of our budgets have not increased or they’ve increased only very marginally,” she said.
Childcare providers and advocates have long said the biggest issue in child care now is the lack of workforce, which is partly a result of low wages.
Reynolds convened a task force in March 2021 to study how to meet the childcare crisis. The group’s November 2021 report contained 15 recommendations, and the Iowa Legislature took up only two, low-priority suggestions (the ratio of staff to children and allowing teenagers to watch children unsupervised).
“When the rubber meets the road, you have to look at the bills that Gov. Reynolds signed. What the legislature is willing to do and what she signs into law. So far, all I’ve seen are Band-Aids,” said State Sen. Claire Celsi (D-Des Moines), who serves on the education committee and is a member of the Early Childhood Iowa (ECI) board. She also worked as a childcare provider
Iowa started the grant application for the $30 million through the ECI, which exists to promote child care and early childhood education. It has systems on both state and local levels.
The main goal of the federal grant is to make sure children are ready to enter kindergarten and improve their transition to school environments. Another goal is to help low-income and disadvantaged children so they’re able to keep up with their peers.
One part of the application asked states specifically to consider the effects of COVID on early childhood education, which is something Reynolds and other Republicans frequently talk about when they talk about Iowa reopening schools during the pandemic.
The governor’s office has said she intentionally declined to apply because they didn’t want to pay the $3 million in matching state funds, although Iowa has a $1.91 billion budget surplus.
Celsi said she talked to Iowa HHS Director Kelly Garcia and learned the loss was because the state did not review or submit the necessary paperwork on time.
“Apparently, Gov. Reynolds is getting sick of being embarrassed by all the money flowing into Iowa that she’s giving away right and left,” Celsi said. “I don’t know why she’s getting sick of it, because it’s the only money we’re giving to anyone. She is not funding these priorities at a state level.”
Some of that money flowing into Iowa includes the American Rescue Plan, which has funded a number of Iowa programs since it was signed by President Joe Biden in March 2021. Reynolds has frequently called the money a “blue-state bailout.”
What should be done, Celsi said, is increase eligibility for Iowa’s Child Care Assistance program to at least 200% of the poverty line and raise the income limits. Currently, the program is set at 145% of the federal poverty level.
And that’s only one option. She also suggested adopting solutions other states have come up with such as having free training for childcare providers, which includes skills such as CPR, first aid, mandatory reporting, and professional development.
Celsi and Trone Garriott both mentioned a Kentucky program where childcare providers who work at childcare centers are allowed to bring their own children to the center for free.
“If child care was a priority, it’s really disappointing that she [Reynolds] would leave these dollars on the table,” Trone Garriott said.
But neither legislator sees actual effort being put into solving the problem.
“People, especially men in the legislature, treat this problem very casually like it’s kind of a family problem,” Celsi said. “They [child care experts] know what the problems are and they have solutions. But there’s no funding. And we have a huge surplus.”
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