Early education advocates have armed themselves for the 25th Legislative session with a 31-page report, that, for the first time ever, gives a snapshot of child care in Alaska.
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Among the findings: Parents spend much of their paychecks to put youngsters in programs where teachers are often lower paid and less educated than in other industries in the state.
The commissioners of the report hope to use the numbers to put a statewide system in place for early child care and learning - one that would mean not only better care for children, but would allow parents more diversity of choice in child care and free them up to work.
"Now people are really understanding that early years are the most important years, especially when we are looking at things like our high school graduation rates and ways to impact our children who are ready to learn and succeed in school," said Joy Lyon, executive director of the Association for the Education of Young Children in Southeast Alaska (AEYC-SEA).
The report was completed by the McDowell Group, a Juneau-based consulting firm and commissioned by the System for Early Education Development (SEED) and the University of Alaska Southeast.
It focuses on the economic impact of the child-care system in Alaska. McDowell drew on a variety of information such as Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development statistics and also conducted a telephone survey of 725 randomly selected households.
The report concluded that 63 percent of Alaska's 62,913 children under age 6 live in a household where one or both parents work. It includes those in single-parent families.
All these children are potentially in need of child-care services, the report says.
In recent years, Abbe Hensley, program director of Ready to Read, a state coalition of public and private groups working to better education, said there has been an increased effort to recognize the significance of a person's first years.
Numbers in child care
In 2004, Alaska's population included 62,913 children younger than 6.
Monthly cost of full-time child care averages $400 to 900 per month.
One in seven Alaska households with children younger than 6 in child care received financial assistance.
87 percent of Alaskans supported state funding for early education and child care.
Source: Economic Impact Report on Early Education and Child Care Services in Alaska, McDowell Group Report, July 2006
"I think that just shows how people have come to understand the importance of those early years that the brain is just developing like crazy," Hensley said. "It's a time when all the lights are on and everybody is home."
All but 10 states have an early education system. Alaska does not, and the report found that children are cared for in a variety of programs, including private pre-schools, public programs, Head Start and Even Start and child-care centers.
Lyon said there were a number of surprises in the study. One was the level of support Alaskans have for state funding of at least some portion of child care. Eighty-seven percent of survey respondents said they believed this was important.
A total of $240 million is spent on child care annually, the report says. Of that, $150 million is paid out of parent's pockets while $13.3 million comes from state coffers. Parents pay an average of $400 to $900 per month for full-time care for one child, the report says. In Juneau, one year of child care costs an average of $6,792 versus $3,500 for one year of state college, according to a community profile study by AEYC-SEA.
Lupita Alvarez, director of the private Juneau Montessori School, said that roughly 30 percent of the children receive some sort of funding. More state support would translate into better wages for the 13 staff members, which would help prevent inevitable turnover in lower paying child care jobs, she said.
An early-education and child-care worker in Alaska earns an average of $16,093 per year, compared with the state's average income of $38,616, the report says.
Child-care workers are a significant portion of the state economy, the report found. There are 6,500 workers in the early learning and child-care sector, and Lyon said "that is a substantial portion of the economy."
Access to care is also important to the economy because it allows parents who wish to work to do so.
"One-third of people who were surveyed were prevented or prohibited in their ability to work because of their access to affordable, quality child care," Lyon said.
While no legislation has been introduced yet this year, action is expected by advocacy groups.
One initiative that will likely surface is a measure that would create a "quality rating system."
It would be designed to be similar to a hotel-rating system, Lyon said. It would give parents information to consider when choosing a care facility, such as cost, teacher education, and small class sizes.
With such a rating system in place, Carol Prentice, SEED's program manager, said it is likely that the programs will only get better.
"It is sort of a way of letting the market drive the system," she said. "It is the way that parents can have some objective information about the quality of care that they are getting. The work behind that is establishing the criteria and actually going and rating these centers. It becomes an incredible tool for education."
SEED has already been working on getting care workers better educated to help fulfill a federal Head Start mandate requiring that a program's lead teacher have at least an associate degree.
"(If child-care workers) are prepared and have AA degrees, they are going to demand a wage higher than $20,000," she said. This will also end up benefiting the facilities and ultimately, the children.
"Whenever I chose somebody else (to take care of my children), I wanted that person to be somebody who would be as nurturing and as knowledgeable about child development as I was," Hensley said.
She also said, however, that a statewide system might take 10 or more years to hammer out.
It would also look quite different from other states and include a variety of venues, including family-centered literacy centers, private day cares, public schools, or even programs that support home-schooling.
"Anything that should be created in our state should give parents more choices rather than fewer," Hensley said.
"Time and again we have come up with a need to have some firm numbers. For the first time we have a much more clear picture of what is happening for parents, employers, and for children," Lyon said.
Brittany Retherford can be reached at email@example.com.