Panel highlights hurdles to affordable child care in JoCo, where it costs up to $13K per year on average

Four panelists discussed the issues facing early childhood education at a Prairie Village diversity committee town hall on Thursday. Photo credit Juliana Garcia

With more than 70% of Johnson County mothers in the workforce by one new estimate, child care is a critical part of life for many local families, but a Prairie Village diversity committee panel Thursday evening highlighted several barriers families here still face in finding high-quality, affordable child care and early childhood education programs.

  • Some of the key topics of the evening included affordability and accessibility to early childhood education, the lack of  qualified early childhood educators and financial constraints on expanding programs.

By the numbers: More than 70% of children born in Johnson County have moms in the workforce, according to a United Community Services of Johnson County’s early childhood fact sheet.

  • While that “suggests many children will need out-of-home care at some point before they reach school age,” there aren’t enough slots in local child care programs available to meet demand, according to UCS of Johnson County.
  • Child care costs on average of $13,600 for an infant and $11,200 for a toddler per year in Johnson County, according to UCS.

Bigger picture: The issues surrounding early childhood education are not only present in Johnson County or in the Kansas City region but across the nation, the panelists noted.

  • Larry Lewis, executive director of the Growing Futures Early Education Center in Overland Park, said 700,000 people left the education field in the last two years across the country, a trend exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Early childhood education is known to be an economic issue, though “politics tend to get in the way,” said Melissa Rooker, another panelist who is executive director of Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund and a former state representative from Fairway.
  • Rooker said getting to the root of early childhood education issues will “take all hands on deck.”

Key quote: “We call our strategic plan ‘All In for Kansas Kids,’ and we mean it,” Rooker said, referring to the Children’s Cabinet’s vision. “It’s the private sector, it’s the federal government, it’s the state government, it’s the local government, it’s school districts, it’s community colleges, it’s parents and businesses. It will take all of us to actually help address the inequity and brokenness of the childcare system.”

Going deeper: For lower income families, the challenges are more pronounced.

  • UCS says for local Early Head Start programs, which are federally funded, there are just four slots available per 100 children between newborn and 3 years old.
  • At the same time, there are just 20 slots available per 100 children ages 3 and 4.
  • But inaccessibility to early childhood education and child care has a ripple effect on local economies, said Scott Hall, a panelist and senior vice president for civic and community initiatives with the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.
  • Lack of affordable child care leads some families to make the difficult choice in some households of having one of the parents drop out of the work force in order to stay home to take care of children.

What they’re saying: “In the greater Kansas City metro, there are 115,000 open jobs and 50,000 people in the greater Kansas City metro looking for jobs,” Hall said. “The single biggest barrier right now to people who worked in jobs prior to the pandemic and who are not now, is child care.”

Another thing: Rooker added that most child care workers in the state enter the workforce at an hourly wage of either $9 or $10.

  • Leigh Anne Neal, the Shawnee Mission School District’s chief of early childhood education and sustainability, said on Thursday that the district hopes to expand its pre-K program but needs space for classrooms and funding to do so.
  • Hall with the Greater Kansas City Chamber said if nobody stands to directly benefit from solving the early childhood education puzzle, lobbying for it at state and federal levels simply won’t happen.

Zooming out: Johnson County Board of County Commissioner Becky Fast said the county has earmarked $2 million to develop a child care business training center.

  • That center will focus on how child care entrepreneurs can build a sustainable, profitable business in an effort to supply additional childcare options in a growing community, Fast said.
  • Fast said the county is also committing $300,000 to help with licensing, application or reapplication fees for child care centers.
  • Fast said, the county’s microtransit program — smaller public buses that can be booked for specific rides — is also being expanded.
  • “The workforce is coming, but we need transit, child care and housing to meet our growing and thriving economy,” Fast said.