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Burgum proposes investment to improve North Dakota's child care system

Doug Burgum's latest legislative proposal aims to help increase the availability and affordability of child care in North Dakota.

Doug Burgum stands in front of a wall with trees painted on it and the alphabet across the top.
Gov. Doug Burgum presents a legislative proposal regarding child care at Bright Futures Learning Center on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum
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FARGO — Hoping to improve the current “crisis” in child care, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum has announced a framework for legislation on Tuesday, Sept. 13, promising an “injection” of financial help to address the availability, affordability and quality of child care services across the state.

The proposal received bipartisan support, and it will continue to be refined for introduction to the state legislature in January 2023, he said.

Surrounded by legislators from around the state, Greater North Dakota Chamber President and CEO Arik Spenser and others at Bright Futures Learning Center, 2511 53rd Ave. S., Burgum said much of the proposal still needs to be defined.

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Burgum's proposal will connect families to child care, increase the number of eligible children, expand child care availability, add tax credit initiatives, expand the model of public and private partnerships and help with investment into child care centers, Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford said.

Additionally, the state has plans to match employer benefits toward child care for working families.

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Shortly after the press conference, the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Legislative Caucus released a statement in support of Burgum’s proposal but added that even more assistance was needed.

“As longtime champions for making child care more accessible and affordable in North Dakota, we support these proposals, and we believe they don’t go far enough because of the scale of the crisis,” said Sen. Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo.

Burgum said the goal is to raise salaries, but that the proposal is based on a model to begin building the infrastructure and reverse the cycle by first addressing working family issues, then issues with child care businesses, which would positively affect child care worker salaries. That, in turn, will then help the community and employers, he said.

“To attract and retain companies to North Dakota, we have to have child care,” he said.

In the Dem-NPL statement, Rep. Zac Ista, of Grand Forks, noted the child care crisis is a pressing issue, adding that the legislature needs to act quickly to address the scale of the problem.

“Childcare is an incredibly urgent issue for families and the business community right now,” Ista said. “Businesses are desperate for workers, but parents can’t go to work if they can’t find a safe place that provides quality care for their kids. And families who can find childcare are struggling to pay for it.”

“Child care is challenging because most families cannot afford quality care, and child care centers have difficulties charging what they need to be able to function,” Sanford said.

Last May, the North Dakota Child Care Alliance , a statewide grassroots coalition, began a yearlong campaign to address the issue of what they called “child care deserts,” saying that the state legislature needed to get involved.

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The main issues related to the “statewide crisis” were outlined then and focused on the affordability of child care, a worker shortage with low pay of about $11 an hour and a lack of available child care centers.

Erin Laverdure, of the North Dakota Child Care Alliance, who is also a child care provider, said Burgum’s proposal shines a spotlight on the dilemma but was missing a key ingredient.

“Child care is a labor issue that is unique in that it affects all other workforces,” Laverdure said.

Nick Archuleta, North Dakota United president, agreed with Laverdure, saying Burgum’s proposal did not address the child care workforce shortfall and that salaries, currently at $11.19 per hour, must be raised.

“The child care proposal released by the Governor today is a step in the right direction. However, we believe the approach must be three-pronged focusing on families, businesses and workers. We must strive to professionalize the childcare workforce and that means we must provide more competitive salaries to those caring for our children,” Archuletta said.

Chris Jones, the director of the State Department of Health and Human Services, said he’s not proud of the current pay scale for child care workers, but that the premise of the proposal is to put “more funding into the system.”

The lack of adequate child care services “sort of snuck up on us,” Burgum said. “North Dakota is the fourth youngest state in the nation now. We’re the only state in the country from the 2010 to 2020 census to get younger."

He said the number of children from birth to age 5 needing child care services is greater than the size of Grand Forks.

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“Of the 45,000 North Dakota households, that’s 64,000 kids. If they were all in one spot, that would be bigger than Grand Forks. We would have an entire city made up of zero-to-5-year-olds,” Burgum said.

Josh Kramer, of the North Dakota Association of Rural Electrical Cooperatives, said he knows of families traveling 80 miles round-trip to bring their children to a child care center.

“We know that North Dakota’s child care desert requires about 10,000 more child care slots to meet the demand for children ages zero-to-5 with working parents. To staff these additional slots, the state needs at least 1,400 more child care workers,” Kramer said.

Sen. Kyle Davison, R-Fargo, said the legislature must commit to ongoing investment in the children of North Dakota.

“From zero to 3 (year olds), we have some work to do. To create a system that is sustainable will be critical to the future of North Dakota’s workforce,” Davison said.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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