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First round of grant funding open to expand child care access across Idaho

Jax Armstrong, 3, left in policeman costume, plays with Naiya Aguilar, 4 in doctor costume at Giraffe Laugh Early Childhood Learning Center in Boise. (Jim Max for the Idaho Capital Sun)
Jax Armstrong, 3, left in policeman costume, plays with Naiya Aguilar, 4 in doctor costume at Giraffe Laugh Early Childhood Learning Center in Boise. (Jim Max for the Idaho Capital Sun)

Workforce development council expects program to see high demand

The deadline to apply for the first round of child care expansion grants from the Idaho Workforce Development Council is Aug. 1, and council Executive Director Wendi Secrist expects the $15 million in available funding this fiscal year to quickly disappear.

During the 2022 legislative session, the Idaho Legislature approved $15 million from state fiscal recovery funds in the federal American Rescue Plan Act to be used for child care infrastructure grants. The grant funding is intended to be used to shorten waitlists for child care at high-quality facilities, including dollars that can help offset start-up costs for businesses and providers looking to expand. After the August deadline, the program will have two more rounds of funding with deadlines of Oct. 1 and Jan. 1. If the $15 million is not spent by then, the council will open another round.

According to a 2019 study by theBipartisan Policy Center, Idaho has more children who need child care than available providers by about 20,000 children, or 28%. A 2020 report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimated lack of child care costs Idaho$479 million annually in absences and employee turnover, and a recent statewide survey by the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry about barriers to employment cited the cost and lack of quality child care in Idaho as the top issue. Idaho’sworkforce participation rate is hovering around 62%, and Secrist said the Idaho Department of Labor attributes at least some of that to lack of child care, even for those who are in the workforce.

“(Employees) can’t come to work because their child care facility shut down because somebody caught COVID and they have to close,” Secrist said. “So even if you’re working, we’re still suffering from a lack of child care.”

Nearly 60 grant applications already in the queue, director says

During the spring months, the Workforce Development Council assembled a committee of subject matter experts who volunteered their time and held three meetings in May to outline a guiding policy for the grant application process.

Eligible applicants can receive up to $15,000 per child, Secrist said, so if a provider wanted to expand capacity from 15 children to 30, the provider could apply for $225,000. The applicant is required to supplement the request with at least 50% cash or an in-kind matching donation. The council has also set aside $4 million for small providers who care for 12 or fewer children.

The program is designed with many scenarios in mind, Secrist said, because businesses have various needs. Some might need financial help to update a facility or buy a new building, while others could have different plans.

“In some cases, they may already own the building and they don’t need to spend it on acquisition or remodeling, they need some help to attract staff for that first year,” Secrist said. “We’re going to be flexible and let them use it on the things they need.”

As of Thursday morning, Secrist said close to 60 applications were in progress with more than a week left until the deadline. Before that, the council had received more than 300 inquiries about the program, including from large businesses such as Micron and Melaleuca, and rural organizations such as Lost Rivers Medical Center in Arco and Meadows Valley School District in New Meadows.

Some large businesses are looking to partner with child care providers to guarantee child care spots at certain high-quality centers or planning to build or expand their own employee child care facilities, Secrist said. Either way, the grants will be awarded to the organization administering the child care.

Program will give preference to providers of infant and toddler care

Emily Allen, outreach and policy associate at Idaho Voices for Children, has worked with child care providers over the past two years to understand their needs and how changes in Idaho policy could meet those needs. Allen joined the Workforce Development Council’s committee and tried to help craft the grant application process with those providers in mind.

“When we look at the industry at large and the landscape, child care providers tend to not have a lot of administrative staff,” Allen said. “Many of them are just teachers in the classroom, and they don’t have additional capacity every day to be working on a grant application.”

To that end, she said she wanted to keep the application process simple while making sure the providers’ business plan and standards of care were high quality.

Allen also said she wanted to make sure to prioritize providers serving infants and toddlers, because it is especially difficult to find care in that age range across Idaho.

Allen and Secrist said the program will serve as a test case for how future funding could be allocated to support child care in Idaho. While the current funds are from federal stimulus, and the Workforce Development Council will ask for another $15 million in the next legislative session, those funds will expire in 2024. At that point, the council hopes to have enough data and proof that the concept works to start using state funds to keep it going.

“We have to take this issue seriously, we have to recognize this is an ongoing crisis that we have not solved yet and that there’s significant system building to be done,” Allen said. “But really utilizing the opportunity that this program is providing is a step in the right direction, and it’s encouraging. I think we should build on it.”

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.