BISMARCK — As a population boom puts pressure on North Dakota’s supply of child care services, the state is rolling out a program that officials hope will boost school readiness for kids and help recruit and retain workers for providers struggling to keep their facilities fully staffed.
“Bright & Early” is a program led by the state Department of Human Services in partnership with Child Care Aware of North Dakota. It went through a two-year pilot project in Cass County and was officially launched last month in Cass, Stutsman, Ward and Williams counties.
Five additional counties — Burleigh, Grand Forks, Morton, Ramsey and Stark — will implement the program in July, and it will become available to providers in all counties by January 2015, said Jennifer Barry, early childhood services administrator for DHS.
“This is a tipping point for child care, and we are in a unique situation in North Dakota because of the pressure we’re feeling to have child care because of the influx of working parents,” said Linda Reinicke, program director for Child Care Aware in western North Dakota.
Costs of care up
North Dakota has traditionally had one of the highest percentages of children with all parents in the workforce — currently at about 80 percent — possibly because its child care costs have been among the nation’s lowest, Barry said.
In a ranking of the least-affordable states for child care in 2012, North Dakota fared well, landing in 39th place based on the cost of care for an infant in a center at 9.9 percent of the state’s median income for a two-parent family. Minnesota ranked as the third least-affordable state for infant center care, at 15.5 percent, while South Dakota ranked 46th and Montana ranked 20th in the report by Child Care Aware of America.
Statistics show median income growth in North Dakota has outpaced the average cost of child care. Still, the average cost of infant care at a center was up about $800 last year, to $8,300 annually, and Barry said DHS realizes not all parents facing such increases have seen their incomes rise.
Demand exceeds supply in child care
Child care in North Dakota also is in short supply, in part because the state has added about 78,000 residents since 2004, driven in part by oil and gas development in the western half.
Reinicke said industry standards suggest a community’s licensed child care supply should meet 50 percent of the potential demand. But North Dakota’s supply declined from 41 percent in 2011 to 34 percent last year, and 10 counties didn’t have enough supply to meet 10 percent of demand, Child Care Aware reported.
Reinicke said bringing the state’s oil- and gas-producing counties up to 25 percent capacity by 2015 would require an additional 10 centers with 100 spaces each, 28 group providers with 18 spaces each and 33 family day cares with seven spaces each.
Last year, 167 new child care programs opened in North Dakota, adding 2,308 spaces. But 209 programs closed, resulting in a net loss of 191 spaces, Child Care Aware reported.
A new approach
Bright & Early aims to stabilize the industry, increase quality and help retain providers and workers, Reinicke said.
The voluntary program is part of a national movement to adopt Quality Rating and Improvement Systems, with nearly all states in some stage of implementation or development.
“It essentially recognizes providers for achieving measures of quality and then seeks to inform parents about the qualities of programs that are participating,” Barry said.
Step 1 of the four-step program recognizes licensed providers whose facilities have met basic requirements such as fire protection and background checks.
Step 2 assesses whether a provider’s environment and daily routines support early childhood development — a DHS priority because 90 percent of a child’s brain development happens before he or she enters kindergarten. Providers can qualify for grants to help them achieve Step 2 status, and bonus grants of $80 per child are awarded to those who do.
The program’s third and fourth steps relate to curriculum and teacher-student relationships, but because of funding limitations, the state is offering only the first two steps for now.
Barry said DHS set aside $1.2 million for the program from two bills approved by the 2013 Legislature, which won’t be enough for every provider to participate.
“It’s still limited in the numbers we can offer, so it’s kind of first-come, first-serve,” she said, adding that if signups exceed available funding, DHS will give priority to providers serving infants, toddlers and low-income families.
Other states with successful programs have used a combination of state, foundation and business sector funding, Barry said.
“I’m hoping that we can see some really good results and then encourage some other partners to invest in it,” she said.
Officials also hope the additional recognition and professionalism that Bright & Early brings to providers — as well as the extra dollars — will help them hold on to employees and attract others to the field, Barry said.
During a meeting last week of the Legislature’s interim Economic Impact Committee, two Fargo Democrats, Sen. George B. Sinner and Rep. Josh Boschee, stressed the need to find ways to help providers offer higher wages for their hired help. Among the strategies proposed by Child Care Aware are refundable tax credits for parents and workers linked to Bright & Early providers.
Others question whether throwing more money at the industry will solve its problems.
Sen. Tom Campbell, R-Grafton, said he toured child care facilities in his city and heard that over-regulation “is driving a lot of these day care employees crazy.
“They don’t have the time, it’s a lot of paperwork, and they’re just getting frustrated and quitting, and a lot of their staff (are) quitting because they’re overworked,” he said.
Barry and Reinicke said the complaints likely stem from federal or local regulations. Barry noted DHS has worked for the past three years with an advisory board of providers from across the state on rule revisions, and licensing rules have actually become less stringent in most cases.
Reinicke said solving the state’s child care issues won’t be easy.
“There’s no silver bullet for it,” she said.