Frustration grows over Iowa forgoing child care assistance

Anne Discher, executive director of Common Good Iowa, walked out of a conference of early childhood advocates in Chicago this week saying she keeps getting stopped and asked the same question: What does Iowa think?

The question was in response to a decision by Gov. Kim Reynolds and the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services not to submit a request for a federal grant of up to $30 million to fund child care services in the state.

The governor’s office said so in a statement, and the department head did not want to allocate $3 million in equivalent state funding to childcare, with $1 million allocated for administrative costs. These decisions come despite a state budget that has an unspent surplus of nearly $2 billion, and Reynolds has repeatedly said child care is a state priority.

Instead, state officials recommended using existing funds for some of the proposed projects rather than applying for the grant.

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Alex Murphy, the governor’s communications director, said in a statement that Reynolds and the department “remain committed to developing and implementing programs that improve child care and early learning opportunities for children and families in Iowa,” and that nearly 175 more Millions of dollars in federal funding is available.

Murphy said the governor has approved more than $500 million in state and federal funds to improve access to child care statewide since the pandemic began. That, he said, has created more than 10,000 new child care places nationwide and supported programs for child care workers.

However, Discher said frustration is growing among childcare workers and advocates across Iowa to spend money to make it easier for families to access childcare services.

Iowa had previously received funding under the same grant program and received assurances from federal officials that qualifying applications were likely to be approved, the Iowa Capital Dispatch reported.

“People are very, very disappointed, and it’s a decision that’s very outside of the mainstream when you look at other states and what they’re doing to take advantage of this federal opportunity,” Discher told The Gazette.

Iowa leads the nation in the percentage of households in which both parents work. Yet 23 percent of Iowans, including 35 percent of rural Iowans, live in a childcare desert. Childcare shortages cost the Iowa economy about $935 million annually by preventing parents from entering or staying in the labor market, according to a 2021 report by the governor’s Child Care Task Force.

Additionally, with an average monthly cost of $1,031 for an average Iowa family, childcare is more expensive than housing, the report found.

What Discher said makes the decision not to apply all the more alarming. She said she believes this reflects the Republican governor’s reluctance to accept funding from Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration.

Reynolds last year turned down $95 million in federal aid to step up COVID-19 testing in schools and safely reopen classrooms as part of America’s $1.9 trillion bailout plan. In addition, the Des Moines Register reported last week that the state of Iowa has refused to ask federal officials to reallocate $98 million in unspent federal money awarded to the state for rent subsidies and affordable housing in Iowa. As a result, the money will most likely be returned to the US Treasury and distributed to other states.

“While I understand the political dynamics in this context, it is still alarming and a little confusing that we are missing out on this opportunity,” Discher said.

Passing on the scholarship funds means fewer children from low-income families will receive help to enter kindergarten prepared and ready for school success, said Colette Stocks, program director at the Linn County Child Development Center.

“It’s a bad decision,” Stocks said. “I’m against it. It’s just really sad that the kids always come last instead of being our future like they’re always said to be.”

While pandemic funds have helped, those funds will expire in fiscal 2024. Without additional funding, Stocks fears that overall Iowa staffing levels and childcare will suffer.

“It affects us to hire people. It will affect children who can come home. It will affect families who can work because they will be limited in what they can find and afford for childcare, she said. “The need for child care is still out there, and it’s sad to see that Iowa would … withdraw some of that funding for children.”

‘Kick in the teeth’

State Senator Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, served on the board of Early Childhood Iowa, a statewide initiative that worked on the grant application.

She claims the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services was too thin to apply for the federal preschool development grants in time. The newly formed State Department combines two major state services, the Department of Human Services and the Department of Public Health, into one.

The department did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week as of Thursday evening. Early Childhood Iowa referred questions to the department.

Celsi said her fellow board member and department head Kelly Garcia told her the agency would instead use American Rescue Plan money for childcare efforts, which the grant would have funded.

“There’s no point in forgoing this free federal money and having it on top of what the ARPA money would have provided,” Celsi said. She called the governor’s office’s refusal to seek federal aid “a kick in the face.” at day care centers in the state.

She noted that Iowa could have used the scholarship funds to improve the pay, benefits and working conditions for early childhood educators in the state.

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families has issued guidance encouraging states to use the grant funds to provide financial incentives for hiring and retaining staff to address shortages.

“We can’t expect childcare providers and centers to continue to fill the gap and go on for years without a raise and piling up more work for these poor people,” Celsi said.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, child care workers in Iowa earned a median annual income of $22,320 and an hourly wage of $10.73 in 2021. Nationally, childcare workers made an average of $27,680 annually and $13.31 hourly.

Common Good Iowa, a nonprofit research and advocacy group that also focuses on issues like work and family support, said the $30 million could have expanded the preschool to more children or provided more hours per week.

“It appears that state officials are willing to make childcare more accessible, except when it comes to spending state dollars on it, at which point commitment seems to wane,” Discher said. “There’s a stated interest in early childhood until you gotta put your money where your mouth is.”