Iowa child care crisis continues despite legislative pushes

By: - August 4, 2021 4:08 pm

Universal pre-kindergarten is in a new Biden administration spending plan but paid family leave is out. (Photo by Getty Images)

Iowa still has a child care crisis, advocates and lawmakers say, despite legislation approved this year aimed at easing the crunch.

The Iowa Legislature passed three bills addressing child care this year, ranging from from changing tax credits to increasing the number of children in unregulated child care facilities. Rep. Tracy Ehlert, D-Cedar Rapids, said the recent interest in the regulation of child care is important, but it might not be in the right areas. 

“The interest is definitely there, is the interest in the right areas is the question,” she said. “I look at all the bills and discussions about investing in new centers, whether it was tax credits to developers or to businesses opening up news centers. But nobody is looking at our existing programs and how many of them don’t have enough staff.”

Ehlert, a child educator, said she plans to introduce legislation next session to fix unaddressed errors in the state’s child care systems. 

Phasing out the “cliff effect”

Some child care advocates said they were impressed with the Iowa Legislature’s commitment to improving the reality of child care in the state, Iowa Community Action Association Executive Director Katherine Riley Harrington said in an email to Iowa Capital Dispatch. 

“We were very impressed with this Legislature’s focus on early childhood policy measures and thought that there were a lot of positive policy proposals that were holistic in tackling this important issue and engaged both employers and providers alike,” she said. 

One of the bills that received unanimous approval in the Iowa House and Senate was House File 302, which creates a gradual phase-out of state child care assistance programs for families whose income increases. Prior to the bill, there was a sudden drop-off of benefits, known as the “cliff effect.” 

Harrington said while it may be too early to know the effect the bill will have in the state, she believes it was well founded and will help many Iowa families. 

“We have heard for years that the families we serve were making tough choices about receiving raises and increased hours due to the income eligibility limitations for child care assistance,” she said.

Sheila Hansen, government relations manager for Common Good Iowa, agreed and said it’s likely that the bill will improve the livelihoods of hundreds of Iowans. 

“It’ll have a positive impact, for sure,” she said. “Fiscal notes said the bill will impact a couple hundred people, and those people are going to be Iowans that can stay at work.”

Helping unregulated care homes

Of the child care bills approved this year, House File 260 had the most state legislators vote against it. It still had bipartisan support and passed the House with a vote of 70-24. The bill allows unregulated child care providers to care for up to six children instead of five, as long as one is school aged. 

Ehlert voted against the bill because she said it didn’t benefit registered homes that are hurting because of the pandemic and the derecho. 

“We are doing very little to support that (regulated) workforce,” she said. “But here, we bring this bill forward that says let’s let our non-registered providers earn more income and take another child.”

A lot of work goes into developing child-to-adult ratios in child care, she said, and increasing the number of spaces at registered facilities would have been a better step.

Ehlert introduced an amendment to the bill that would require some oversight of these programs through a childhood assistance agreement with the Department of Health and Human Services. The amendment failed on a vote of 36-58.

Harrington said the Iowa Community Action Association lobbied against the bill because it creates a disincentive for providers to register with the state.

“Child care homes that are registered are allowed to care for seven children. This bill allows for non-registered providers to care for six children,” she said. “Iowa Community Action wants to support incentives for child care providers to become registered.” 

Rep. Joel Fry, R-Osceola, introduced the bill. During debate, he said the bill would create a partial solution to some of the problems with Iowa’s child care shortage. 

“This is a small solution to some issues in rural Iowa,” he said. “… I would suggest that these are homes or these are family members, grandparents, aunts and uncles, these are neighbors who are caring for children in our small communities.”

Ehlert said Iowans will have to monitor whether child injuries increase in unregulated facilities in coming months.

Governor launches child care task force

Gov. Kim Reynolds launched her Child Care Task Force in March. The group is tasked with developing new strategies to ease Iowa’s child care shortage. 

Hansen said she expects the task force to play a role in how legislators discuss and create legislation regarding child care in the state. She expects some of the task force’s recommendations to require action from the Legislature. 

One of the reasons the task force was created was because of the loss of child care businesses in the last five years. Ehlert said she hopes that lawmakers will look for ways to support registered care centers and workers to ensure people stay in the child care sector. 

State Rep. Tracy Ehlert is a Democrat from Cedar Rapids. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Legislature)

“We are absolutely still in a child care crisis,” she said. “Here in Linn County, we just had another center close. It affected 60 families … and they gave families a two-day notice. They started tracking the data last summer, due to COVID, and we have lost almost 40 programs, just in Linn County.”

Moving forward

One of the issues that Hansen and Harrington want to see discussed in the next legislative session is to allow more Iowans to be eligible for child care assistance. Harrington said it’s the next step in improving child care within the state.

“We do wish the Legislature would have addressed increasing the income eligibility level to receive child care assistance to 185% of the federal poverty level,” she said. Currently it is at 145%. Access to child care has a huge impact on self-sufficiency.”

Increasing the eligibility further than what was accomplished this year, Hansen said, would be life changing for Iowa families. However, she said there have to be child care facilities for parents to send their kids.

“We can increase eligibility and get more families eligible for child care, but we do have to have quality spaces available for those families to send their children,” she said. “There needs to be a way to do both at the same time.” 

Ehlert said she hopes Iowa makes the most out of this year’s legislation and the Legislature continues to invest in the state’s child care programs. One of her biggest concerns is ensuring child care centers have the staff they need to help Iowa families. 

“Most of these (closures) are because they can’t find staff to work in them,” she said. “The center that just closed, I’m worried that that staff could go to any other center in town and get a job no problem because they have experience, and centers are hiring, but I’m not confident they’re going to stay in the field. They could get a job at Target and make $15 an hour with benefits.”

Hansen said Iowa is off to a good start with the new laws, but the fight for better child care in Iowa is far from over. She said she hopes legislators will continue to focus on the issue in future sessions. 

“I’m optimistic,” she said. “ … Our work isn’t done. I was very grateful for the legislators and we appreciate the work that they have done, but we can’t rest on our goals. We have plenty of work to do.”

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Eleanor Hildebrandt
Eleanor Hildebrandt

Eleanor Hildebrandt is a senior at the University of Iowa majoring in journalism and mass communication and global health studies, with a minor in German. She is a managing editor at the university newspaper, the Daily Iowan, and has served as an reporter intern at Iowa Capital Dispatch.