Those who have any recent experience with children under 6-years-old know it’s no secret that Juneau has a child care problem in terms of quantity and consistency. One local group is making big moves to try and turn that around, and has the Assembly’s ear.
The Association for the Education of Young Children — Southeast Alaska has teamed up with the Juneau Economic Development Council to show not only how much quality child care is needed, but also how to turn around the child care shortfalls of simply not having enough, not having child care workers stick around in the field long and lengthy waiting lists.
One of the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly’s top 10 goals this year was to improve local child care. The two groups made a presentation to the Assembly last week, proposing an initiative called HEARTS — Hiring, Educating and Retaining Teaching Staff — to improve child care in the borough. The Assembly sent it to its finance committee to find funding.
JEDC’s Meilani Schijvens, program officer, and AEYC’s director Joy Lyon talked about the good and bad elements of child care in the city.
“The problem with childcare in Juneau is there is just not enough of it,” Schijvens said. “There are enough licensed care providers for just 1 of 4 kids.”
JEDC used 2000 Census data and estimated figures for 2008 for its report, and found that there are about 2,200 children in child care age from infancy through five years old — with roughly 1,500 children have both parents or sole parent in the workforce. Juneau has 42 licensed child care facilities with capacity to serve 498 children ages 5 and under. Waiting lists for most programs, the report found, are up to two years.
“The parents of more than 1,000 Juneau children appear to have found alternatives to state-regulated child care programs,” the report states. “While unlicensed providers caring for more than four unrelated children are operating illegally, there appears to be minimal enforcement, few incentives to become licensed and many unlicensed child care facilities in Juneau. In addition to care by unlicensed providers, children are cared for by grandparents; brought to work with parents; or are cared for in homes with four or less children, which is legal.”
Schijvens said there is a saying in Juneau that “If you wait until you think you might be pregnant you’re probably too late to sign up for child care.” She said instead it’s more like, “You need to sign up for child care when you think you might be in love.”
She said when she was six weeks pregnant with her son she notified child care places in town that she was interested in child care. Schijvens said she told them before family and friends. It wasn’t until he was 2 years old that he got into a program.
“There are issues within the child care system itself,” she said. “There are high child care provider turnover rates.”
Juneau’s turnover rate is 65 percent — compared to 46 percent statewide, 33 percent nationwide.
Schijvens said the biggest reason for that turnover is low pay compensation, with the average child care worker earning $20,100 annually, coupled with Juneau’s notorious high cost of living. The average two-bedroom apartment, she said, runs 2.4 times what those workers earn. The average Juneau worker earns $44,000 annually.
Part of this problem, Schijvens said, is due to providers high operating costs and Juneau parents being unable to afford any more than they already pay.
Schijvens said when those positions turn over, they’re typically filled with people less qualified than their predecessors.
“For every 5.5 childcare workers in Juneau, only 1 has basic child care development credentials,” she said.
Schijvens also focused on data from studies showing that early childhood education for lower income children result in lower drug use, crime, welfare use and higher graduation rates.
The groups studied ways to improve child care and settled on the HEARTS initiative.
“The good news is we do have solutions,” Lyon said. “We have recommendations that have been tested and proven in other communities. It really had a dramatic impact on stabilizing the workforce.”
It also led all of the states having improved education levels,” she said.
One part of HEARTS is to focus on the child care workforce. That includes improving retention, education levels and professionalism.
Another part includes improving the quality and quantity of care by offering educational incentives, City and Borough of Juneau child care fee waivers and provide professional reimbursements.
Nikki Morris, Family Services Coordinator with AEYC, explained the incentive recommendations.
For the educational component, there would be compensation given in tiers for child care workers who gain additional education. Tier two, for example, would require an Associate of Arts in either early childhood development or child care. It would give the person an additional $1.35 per hour. The total cost of buffering those wages for CBJ is estimated at $60,000, with a total of 26 people eligible.
“The payscale is very flat,” Morris said. “Some people do have higher degrees or more training. They don’t see a correspondence in their wages. The idea is to incentivise the profession. Anyone who is getting into that level, they can see that as they increase their training, there is compensation to go along with that.”
Fee waivers are another component, which could include fire marshal inspections, conditional use permits, sales tax exemptions and property tax exemptions. Morris said relief from these fees would entice more operators to become licensed.
That could cost the city about $51,000. Morris said Ketchikan offers a no-sales-tax incentive.
The third component focuses on professional reimbursements. Those include fee reimbursements for things like first aid or CPR training, background checks and mandatory early childhood training.
Those incentives could cost about $31,000.
HEARTS would cost the city $143,000 annually — or $60 per child.
Morris also explained that there are measurable goals to see if this pilot program is doing what it should. The program would be expected to run a minimum of three years.
The measurable goals include quality control, retention rates, professional development levels and total child care capacity.
Morris said AEYC is prepared to administer a program like this, and wants to discuss criteria for eligibility for this program. That would potentially look at how many children a child care provider has to serve, licensing and other considerations.
“We really would want to move forward with the Assembly in working out all the details,” Lyon said. “There are minimums, like you would need to be in your current position for 6 months, need to commit for a year. For property tax, you would set a minimum number of children you’re caring for. Definitely we want to look at making sure it’s effective.”
The next Finance Committee meeting, yet to be scheduled, will address funding for the program. City Manager Rod Swope, when asked by the Assembly, said it could come from the general fund reserve, from looking internally or by seeking start up funds from the State.
“They might be interested in a program like this, particularly with start up funds,” Swope said. “The thing I like about this is it’s well thought out. The other thing I like about it is the measurables.”
For more information on the HEARTS initiative or AEYC’s information on child care see www.aeyc-sea.org/members.htm.
• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at firstname.lastname@example.org