New federal regulations are changing how daycare centers are allowed to operate in Montana. While state officials write a plan for these new rules, some childcare providers are unsure about the future of their businesses.
Today at the student-funded daycare center at the University of Montana, 24 kids are playing.
Soon they’ll be separated into two groups, in order to follow the new regulations about how many kids one adult can supervise.
This could be seen as helpful, because student-funded child care will be able to take on four more children in this classroom. But some other places in the state could be forced to close.
UM’s daycare program was concerned that might happen to them, but last Wednesday, student government voted to continue funding the program. This meant cutting their funding to UM Productions, giving childcare an additional $80,000 from last year.
But not all daycare programs may be able to easily adjust to the new regulations.
There are serious concerns that some may have to close. If large centers have to cut the number of children they can care for, they may not be able to bring in enough revenue to survive.
Kaitlin Hopingardner, a student senator at UM and mother of a 2-year-old, says that the aim of the changes is to raise the bar for child care and root out underground centers.
“Their heart’s in the right place with these regulations," Hopingardner says.
Director of student-funded child care at UM, Lauralea Sanks, says that she thinks some parents who can’t afford quality care, or can’t get their children into programs because of extensive waiting lists, will resort to unlicensed centers, or leaving their kids with neighbors or family members.
“I’m concerned because I think that it can definitely negatively affect families, negatively affect good quality programs, and that’s where my heart is, that’s where my concerns are,” Sanks says.
Childcare providers around the state say they won’t be able to afford to split their facilities into multiple rooms, or hire more staff.
“You know, people from Miles City, people from Bozeman, people from Billings, you know… from all over the state. That’s what is the reality, is that there’s a very strong likelihood that there will be programs closing, and some of the people that spoke over in Helena basically said, ‘unless something changes, we’re going to have to close our doors,’” Sanks said.
Not everyone sees the new child care rules as such a threat.
“There are actually some really exciting things about this," said Jamie Palagi, Administrator for the State of Montana’s Human and Community Services Division.
“And while there is some fear that is driving some of the interviews and interest from the media there are some really, really positive things happening," Palagi says.
In 2014, Congress passed the re-authorized Child Care and Development Block Grant. The law aims to provide more affordable and higher quality childcare. This is the first update to the child care law since 1996.
Palagi says Montana will receive about $15 million a year from the federal government through the grant. That money, and the regulations that come with, it will impact the roughly 1,000 childcare facilities in Montana. Last year, 8,000 families received federal assistance to pay for childcare in Montana.
“The Block Grant has a variety of different sections focused on health and safety standards," Palagi says. "It has a lot of provisions for helping or supporting childcare providers or professionals by providing targeted training or support. And then it also helps support families in ways that they can make sure they have the opportunity for choice. To choose the kind of child care they want and also be able to afford those kinds of child care programs.”
Families up to 150 percent of the federal poverty line are eligible. That’s about $30,000 for a family of three. It used to be that anyone above that line got dropped from childcare assistance.
“And so there are some new previously that came from the new law that allow things such as, if a parent loses their job we don’t want to have kids just not be served, so it allows a window of time for kids to stay in childcare and have that paid for, while the parent looks for new work," Palagi says."Or, once parent reach es that upper limit, they’re past the 150 percent of the federal poverty level, there is a way to help them take on more of the cost of childcare, but in a gradual weighted step-down process.”
Palagi says the federal guidelines are, in general, good rules to support Montana children and families. But, she does acknowledge there are some concerns.
“The main concerns that are coming from child care providers," she says, "and I wouldn’t say it’s from one setting versus another, it's across the board, there is a provision in the federal law that says states have to establish a group size.”
Which means how many kids one staffer can supervise. Depending on the number of kids and how old they are, the new federal regulations will require a certain number of staff and a certain number of rooms for those kids to hang out in. And those additional standards could push childcare providers beyond their resources.
Childcare providers also must go through some additional training to increase the quality of care. The Block Grant requires states to increase the annual inspection of childcare centers, which requires state staff to do that work.
“We don’t know yet if we are going to be able to afford it within the structure that we have," Palagi says. "And if not, then we have to have some discussions. We’d have to find additional funding, which may or may not happen in this state, and or be able to adjust to still meet the regulation, but within the resources we have.”
Today marks the deadline for Montana to submit a plan to comply with new federal child care standards, but Palagi’s office has until the fall to cement the details.
She says her office will work with the flexibility within the federal regulations to find what works for Montana.
The federal regulatory requirements go into effect November 2016.