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Idaho families lack access, affordability in early childhood

by RACHEL SUN
Staff Writer | February 26, 2021 1:00 AM

A needs assessment for children from birth to age 5 shows many Idaho families face financial hardship and a lack of access to early childhood care and education, which can negatively impact educational outcomes.

The needs assessment, funded through a three-year, $3.3 million federal grant, was conducted by the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children and the University of Idaho James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Policy Research.

Many Idaho families experience poverty, and other educational challenges including hunger, housing insecurity, a lack of health care and inconsistent access to the internet or a computer, according to the report.

Childcare is also unaffordable for many Idahoans, with a typical family spending 25% of their annual income on childcare for an infant and a 4-year-old, according to the report.

In Bonner County, the report found the annual cost of childcare for infants was around $7,800, $7,200 for 2 to 3-year olds and $6,600 for 3 to 5-year-olds. The median income in Bonner County is $62,241.

According to the assessment in Bonner County, 33.3% of respondents reported that one of the biggest challenges in providing childcare was the cost.

Many of the challenges families face with childcare are cyclical, said Beth Oppenheimer, Idaho AEYC executive director. Childcare is too expensive for many families to afford, but not getting childcare means a parent has to stay home and is unable to bring in an income.

Some other families make too much money to qualify for subsidies, she said, but not enough to pay for childcare without assistance.

Even for those who can afford it, roughly 50% of Idaho communities lack any licensed childcare providers or providers are so scarce there are more than three children for every child care space.

This scarcity of childcare providers was most often found in rural and low-income communities and those with a higher percentage of people of color.

The assessment identified 79 people in Bonner County providing direct care to children, with 44.1% of directors and 38.2% lead teachers having more than 10 years of experience.

Meanwhile, 23.5% of survey respondents in the county said they had experienced a minimum of two employees leave the program per year, and 50% of employees that had left cited wages as their reason for leaving.

4.5% of families in the county reported trouble accessing childcare due to a disability or medical need, according to the survey, and 47.1% of providers reported unenrolling or turning away a client due to inability to meet the needs of a child with a disability or medical need.

One area the needs assessment highlighted, Oppenheimer said, was the lack of data as to how pre-K education affects school readiness.

“We know when they enter kindergarten [where they are] in terms of grade-level reading, but we don't know where they were,” she said. “So as we're thinking through school readiness, and improving literacy and school readiness scores, we really have to be able to connect that dot.”

Over the next three years, Oppenheimer said, AEYC will be working to identify how early child care affects school readiness.

The state also saw additional challenges for families in the year of COVID-19. According to a 300-person study of people across the state, 74% reported they were negatively impacted by the pandemic, over 60% said they were uncomfortable taking their child to a child care provider and 58% expressed concerns that not having their child in childcare was affecting their school readiness.

Further, according to data collected by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 48% of Idaho parents reported missing an average of 4 days of work or class in a three month span.

One of the things this her organization will be doing to help Idaho families, Oppenheimer said, will be to try and provide more resources for families who can’t or choose not to take their children to childcare.

Many of the assessment’s findings are seen in communities across the country. Because there aren’t as many people in the state, Oppenheimer said she believes a different kind of approach can help Idaho’s families.

“Rather than a statewide top-down approach, what we're doing is we're really looking at that community-based level more of a bottom-up approach,” she said. “So we're working with communities throughout Idaho, through what we call local collaboratives so that communities can get together and identify their unique gaps and opportunities and solve that at the local level.”

More information, as well as the Sandpoint area assessment and strategic plan can be found at idahoaeyc.org/pdg.