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Report: Lack of child care results in $479M loss for Idaho’s economy. These groups hope to help.

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A teacher at Giraffe Laugh Early Learning Center works with one of the enrolled children (Courtesy of Giraffe Laugh).

Leaders of two state groups working on a ‘bottom up’ approach to early education

Editor’s Note: This is the first in an ongoing series of articles related to the cost of child care and lack of state support for early childhood education.

In early 2020, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a report about the economic effects of breakdowns in access to child care in four states. Idaho was one of them.

The report found that issues related to child care result in an estimated $479 million annual loss for Idaho’s economy through absences and employee turnover.

Armed with the results of that national report, the leaders of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry and Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children joined forces to start addressing the issue in Idaho.

“Our plan was to come back and do a big push with businesses,” said Beth Oppenheimer, executive director of the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children. “And of course, the second we got back, COVID hit.”

Oppenheimer has been working with Alex LaBeau, president of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, for several years on the issue. While his association represents plenty of businesses, child care providers are not among those partners, and he wanted to collaborate with someone who had a better understanding of the industry.

“I would put (Oppenheimer) at the top of the list of somebody who understands the issue,” LaBeau said. “… We decided there was probably a way for us to work together and move this issue in a way that is unique to Idaho.”

Lack of quality child care a barrier to employment, IACI finds

Workforce availability is a constant issue for businesses of any size in Idaho, LaBeau said, particularly since the state has a steady low unemployment rate. And when the association conducted a statewide survey to determine what factors were barriers to employment, the biggest barrier was the sheer cost and lack of quality child care in Idaho.

“There’s a substantial difference between putting a fence up in your backyard and letting kids run around and quality care,” he said.

LaBeau and Oppenheimer have worked to promote the idea of public and private partnerships to help with access to child care programs.

“Historically, businesses would say, ‘That’s a family issue, not my responsibility,’” Oppenheimer said. “But once they started recognizing and realizing that the lack of affordable quality child care impacts their ability to run their business, then their eyes started opening up a little bit more.”

Early learning collaboratives in Idaho offer bottom-up approach, organizers say

The idea is to create early learning collaboratives between various stakeholders such as city and school leaders and local businesses and pool resources to provide affordable, comprehensive early learning opportunities. Collaboratives are already in place in 15 areas of Idaho, including Caldwell School District and Kendrick School District. Oppenheimer’s association provides a toolkit to help organizations set up a collaborative, and provides backbone support, technical assistance and grant opportunities.

Idaho industry representative: Lack of state support won’t deter our efforts

The idea was partially born out of frustration with a lack of support from the state level.

“For years and years, we tried to kick this football down the field and were always met with, ‘Nope, we’re not going to do that,’” Oppenheimer said. “So, five or six years ago we took a step back and started looking at this issue from a different angle and flipped it on its head, and we said rather than a top-down approach, what if we looked at this as bottom up?”

It’s up to the individuals involved to decide how to run the collaborative, LaBeau said, nothing is prescribed. A business could offer to subsidize child care for an employee at one of the partnering agencies, or the business could buy a certain number of spots in the organization and reserve them for employees. The goal is to see how the partnerships work and determine how effective they are at supplying additional opportunities for workers and businesses.

“We look at it as this is no different than offering your employees health insurance, a retirement plan, all the other different life infrastructure things that are provided to employees across the board,” LaBeau said.

Idaho is one of four states, including New Hampshire, South Dakota and Wyoming, that does not provide any state funding for pre-K programs. And when the Idaho Legislature had the opportunity to approve a $6 million grant from the federal government that would have supported the education collaboratives at no cost to the state, the House of Representatives voted it down over fears from some legislators that it would lead to critical race theory teachings to children. In April, then-President of the Idaho State Board of Education Debbie Critchfield told the House Education Committee that she did not know of any formal complaints or grievances with regard to critical race theory.

LaBeau said that won’t deter their efforts, and the collaboratives will continue and expand.

“We’re not going to let something get derailed over what was, frankly, complete BS, and the Legislature should know better,” LaBeau said. “At least, most of them should.”

The reality, Oppenheimer and LaBeau said, is that the politics in Idaho are what they are, and they prefer to let local communities and businesses determine what works best for them rather than trying to rely on the state for support.

“I don’t really count on the state for much of anything right now with the way that they’re operating,” LaBeau said. “That doesn’t mean that this is not an important issue. There are a lot of very important issues that are out there and important to the economy of the state of Idaho.”

The economic argument is one Oppenheimer said should sway officials like Gov. Brad Little, who has touted Idaho’s economic strength, particularly throughout the pandemic.

“Since child care does impact so many different areas in our communities and our state, it is really the glue that holds everything together,” she said. “Investing first and foremost in child care is not only going to help us continue with our strong economic growth, but also just support children and families.”

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state. As longtime Idahoans ourselves, we understand the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho. We provide in-depth reporting on legislative and state policy, health care, tax policy, the environment, Idaho’s explosive population growth and more. Our mission is relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans. We aim to tell untold stories and provide data, context and analysis on the issues that matter most throughout the state. The Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. We retain full editorial independence.