The struggles of child care in Iowa and bills circulating through the Legislature to address those challenges were the focus of the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s first public policy forum Tuesday.

The discussion, the first of six public policy discussions the Partnership will host in 2021, was moderated by Dave Stone, advocacy officer for the United Way of Central Iowa. Panelists included Claudia Garcia Brown, board president with Conmigo Early Education Center, a bilingual early education center for children ages 1 to 5; Lora Patton, regional director of Child Care Resource and Referral of Central Iowa at Orchard Place; and Mindi Vanden Bosch, of Vermeer, which subsidizes the third-party-operated Yellow Iron Academy to meet the child care needs of its employers and other community members in Pella.  

Here are some of the key takeaways from the panelists:

Child care assistance reimbursement rates
Garcia Brown
“One of the biggest challenges we have is the low reimbursement rate that we have when we partner with the state of Iowa to accept child care assistance. So it is a very big juggling act to keep day care affordable but also keeping it high-quality, and that’s what we’re aiming for. Not just inexpensive child care, but early education for the child we’re caring for.”

Workforce recruitment
“Recruiting and sustaining the child care workforce. It all goes hand in hand. We work with child care centers who say, ‘I have openings. I have no staff.’ Oftentimes teachers in child care programs are getting paid minimum wage with little or no benefits. It’s not a sustainable career for people to go into if they can’t make a livable wage.”

On bills passing through the Legislature
House File 292.
Garcia Brown
“One I’m excited about but could definitely be improved is [House File 292], which raises the reimbursement rate. Unfortunately an amendment that was made where it was recommending a 75% increase to the market rate instead of a 50% increase did not pass. It would be better than right now, where we’re looking at about four years ago, what that market rate was, so it is an improvement, but it could definitely be improved if the reimbursement rate was a little bit higher than that.”

House File 302 and the cliff effect.
Garcia Brown

“[It] creates a more gradual approach where someone would be at about 225% of the poverty level before they start falling off [from child care assistance].It’s a very good bill, but the only thing I would have liked to have seen is right now you have to be at 145% of the poverty rate to qualify for the program. Given the cost of living in the metro, 145% is really not that high, so I would have liked to have seen that a little higher, maybe 175%. I think that would have created a little more traction, especially the employees who work in small businesses.”

House File 301
,which funds the Teach Iowa Wages Program and provides funds to help child care workers continue their education. Employers give employees paid time off to take classes.
The program pays that tuition, and upon completion the employee gets a bonus or 4% increase in pay.
Garcia Brown
“That’s how we’re working with that retention component … and the children in the program benefit because they’re getting teachers who are keeping up with the best practices, teachers who also bring back to the rest of the employees and share that work every day.”

House File 260, which allows for the increased number of children in unregulated home day care centers. Garcia Brown and Patton both expressed concern about the bill.
Garcia Brown
“I see that it helps with a need, but I’m afraid it may also be creating a problem.”

“To try and have a solution to provide more spaces in an unregulated environment is a little bit scary because it’s increasing numbers, safety can be a concern. I would like to see that change if they want to increase numbers to do it with child development homes that are regulated that can currently have eight children; they are monitored, there are requirements in place for the provider and the environment the provider has in their home. Possibly increase there instead of trying to have the solution be with the unregulated providers.”

Tax Credits
“Tax credits for employers who supply child care benefits to their employees is one great step in the right direction. Oftentimes we hear from employers who have people quit because they don’t have child care and it takes them three months to rehire and the amount of money put into that rehire could be put into a child care benefit to help that employee find what they need so they can get to work.”

Teacher pay
Vanden Bosch
“Every community, every company, every group needs to figure out what’s the best fit for them, but one of the biggest issues for us is pay. Because Vermeer subsidizes, we made the decision to offer a higher wage. Because we have such a tight labor market, we had people leaving the child care center who were educated people who left to go to Walmart, and that was hard. We ended up going back and looking at how much we were paying and we ended up raising it. But you can’t just raise tuition all the time to offset what the teachers need to be paid. There is a tough situation of how can we create a career path for the teachers and still make it affordable for parents? I think that’s one of the biggest issues that probably needs to be looked at from the state level.”

The Partnership’s next public policy forum is scheduled for noon on April 20, and it will address the topic of broadband and proposals to expand high-speed internet statewide.