Commentary

Parents’ rights? Not this time, GOP says

Senate turns down parental notice of changes in child care staffing

February 28, 2022 8:00 am

A group of children plays with their teacher. (Photo by Getty Images)

When I was in high school, I agreed to teach a Sunday school class for 3-year-olds at my church with another high-school classmate.

The class was only 45 minutes long, and mostly consisted of coloring, simple crafts and reading Bible stories to the children. No big deal – except there were at least 10 kids in the class and my “team mate” only showed up about half the time.

I managed, even though one little boy always cried when his mother dropped him off, so I usually spent the first 15 minutes of class trying to get everyone settled and busy with a sobbing boy on my hip.

I didn’t have to feed the kids, take them outside, change diapers (I think they were all potty-trained back then) or dispense medications. I don’t recall that any of the kids had disabilities or special needs. Still, it was exhausting. I didn’t volunteer again.

The experience came to mind recently, as lawmakers were debating legislation to allow child care facilities to care for more 2- or 3-year-olds per staff member.

Senate File 2268, which passed the Senate last week, would allow one day care employee to watch up to seven 2-year-olds, or up to 10 3-year-olds. Under current law, child care centers must have one worker for every six 2-year-olds or eight 3-year-olds.

A separate bill, House File 2198, would allow 16-year-olds to care for up to 12 school-age kids, unsupervised by an adult. They might have to manage meals, address behavioral problems, deal with special-needs children and handle any emergencies.

The reason for these bills, according to the supporters, is to address what everyone acknowledges is a serious shortage of affordable child care in the state. Iowa has had this problem for years, but it’s now rising to the attention of GOP lawmakers because it’s an obvious factor behind the state’s equally serious workforce shortage.

“As the workforce shortages continue to challenge Iowans, we’re providing an outlet for their children so they can return to work,” Sen. Jeff Edler, R-State Center, said during last week’s debate of the staff ratio bill.

Democrats: Child care providers are stressed already

Democrats argued that a better way to expand child care positions would be to support higher wages to encourage more people to choose jobs in child care. Simply increasing child-care employees’ workload or encouraging providers to put their teenaged kids on the job potentially could endanger children and burn out existing staff, Democrats said.

“Right now, child care providers in our state are stressed out. And they’re being asked to do things that are kind of unbelievable, really,” Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, said.

She said most providers make about $1.50 per hour per child that they watch, and those wages have risen very little in decades. “Yet, we’re gonna heap more responsibility right on top of them and ask them to stay there and not get a raise. That seems like a recipe for disaster to me,” Celsi said.

It will make the workforce crisis worse, she said.

Having had the limited experience of trying to wrangle a passel of toddlers by myself, I tend to agree. I’d rather flip burgers for the same (or probably more) money.

Edler argued last week that the state wasn’t forcing child care providers to take more tots. Since it’s voluntary, he suggested, it must be fine. However, it won’t be voluntary for the employees, who may not even get a pay raise to care for more kids.

Parents’ rights? Not this time, GOP says

That wasn’t what really what got my jump rope in a twist, however. It was Republican senators’ refusal to require that parents be notified if their child-care center increases its child-to-staff ratio.

Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, who raised a special-needs daughter, tried to add a parental notice requirement to Senate File 2268. As a parent, she said, she had a right to know if her child would be getting less supervision, and 30 days’ notice so she could seek another placement if she felt her child would no longer be safe.

Republicans, who have spent the past month trumpeting their concern about parents’ rights, disagreed. (For the most part, that is. Sen. Jim Carlin, a Sioux City Republican who’s running for U.S. Senate, voted with the Democrats on this amendment.)

Edler said it would be counterproductive since the goal was to reduce burdensome regulation on child-care providers. And yet his party thinks nothing of dumping ever more burdensome regulations on public-school teachers in the name of parents’ rights.

Apparently, parents only have rights when their kids are being supervised by government employees with teaching certificates, as opposed to some of the lowest-paid workers in the state (or maybe 16-year-olds). If parents want the right to know what’s going on with their pre-K kids, maybe they should be pushing for government-funded preschool.

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.

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