KSN Investigates: Day Care Deserts

KSN Investigates

NEWTON, Kan. (KSNW) – Long waiting lists, rising costs and shrinking options. This is a follow-up investigation we first brought you last year on child care across Kansas. We’re getting new numbers that show just how few options some of you have in our state. In fact, we found out some are living in what’s known as a “child care desert.”

Few and far between

Fifteen miles to child care, 15 miles back. One Kansas family drives that distance five days a week, totaling about 150 miles.

“For us, it was just the best fit for our boys, and so I guess that’s worth it,” said Callie Toews, a mother of two. Toews says it’s a small price to pay for her most precious investments.

She and her husband pay thousands of dollars every month to Family First Child Care in Newton.

“I refer friends all the time, and I know they’re probably on a waiting list,” said Toews.

That’s not the exception in Kansas. It’s the rule. New data from the Kansas Department for Children and Families and Child Care Aware of Kansas shows, for children under 3 years old, 77% of our counties have 10 children on a waiting list for every one child care opening. Eighteen counties have no openings for infants and toddlers.

A map from the Center for American Progress shows 44% of Kansans live in what’s called a “child care desert.” In other words, there are more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots.

This material was published by the Center for American Progress. By Rasheed MalikKatie Hamm, Leila Schochet, Cristina NovoaSimon Workman, and Steven Jessen-Howard,

In Harvey County, there are just five child care centers. In southwest Kansas, there are limited options for child care centers and family care centers. Other counties do not have any child care centers.

Child Care Aware of Kansas grants permission to KSNews, to publish the Kansas map showing the county level Supply information from the 2019 Supply Demand Report. The map represents a county snapshot of the Number of Family and Group Child Care Homes, the Number of Child Care Centers (excludes Preschools and Head Start programs) and the county-level data of Percentage of Children Age 0-17 Years Living in Poverty.

Child care providers

“The hardest thing to explain to parents is why we need to charge what we charge,” said Courtney Cantrell, owner of Family First Child Care in Newton.

Cantrell acknowledges that the dropping supply of child care centers and the rising demand for them play a role in why child care is out of reach for some families. Our previous investigation found there were 7,803 licensed child care centers in 2010. Today, that number is down to 4,892, a 37% drop in less than one decade.

“Some parents think we make a lot of money off of child care, that we should be able to offer a benefit like DCF, but we simply can’t afford it to stay open,” said Cantrell.

She said she runs into challenges running a private, for-profit facility. For example, her center is not eligible for tax-exempt status. While she wouldn’t go into specific numbers, she says staff salaries take up the majority of her expenses.

That aspect alone is a challenge to the industry nationwide. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the national median salary for a child care worker is $23,240.

Cantrell says they are competing with businesses that can afford better pay for workers.

“Clerks or whatnot, like you’re saying QuikTrip, Walmart, things like that, and they can make more money and not have the responsibility of lives in their hands, so which would you choose?” added Cantrell.

She calls it a break-even industry, but a career of passion. They watch, feed and teach your children. And before you know it, your children are old enough to attend school.

Possible solutions

“The simple fact that the people who are caring for our most vulnerable citizens, those infants and toddlers and pre-schoolers, are making less than folks who are serving fast food, and that’s just not right,” said Rep. Monica Murnan, D-Pittsburg.

Murnan is a member of the Kansas House Health and Human Services Committee. She says the child care industry is reaching a tipping point.

She feels it needs to evolve into a model that is similar to how we help Americans pay for college, in the form of financial aid.

“I believe we’re going to have to create some kind of system of subsidy for child care providers, just like we do other industries, in order to support this critical component of our communities,” said Murnan.

Cantrell said it’s important for her center to gain tax-exempt status on certain things like property taxes.

Some critics would say the answer is loosening up requirements for child care workers. But Cantrell argues the quality of care would drop if you did that, and that would also upset parents.

Help for parents

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