Grant funding intended to pay for scholarships to ease cost of child care in Ashland
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
Between sprinkles of rain on Sunday afternoon, Ashland resident Casey Albright pushed his 4-year-old daughter Breanna on the swings at Lithia Park.
The 33-year-old single dad told Ashland.news he has been looking for child care in Ashland for his daughter during the last month and how, in his situation, it’s crucial to have more quality time with her. Albright works 50 to 60 hours per week, sharing his daughter with her mom part of the time. He posted on social media on Saturday, saying he doesn’t have family close by and could use advice on where he might find additional child care so his daughter could have an extra night with dad.
“Those night times, we read a story every night before she goes to bed, we get some snuggle time in, watch her favorite (TV) show,” Albright said. (Currently the favorites are watching funny babies and kids on “Rumble.”)
Albright said his daughter is in her second year at a Medford preschool, but he would like to find child care in Ashland for the part of the week he cares for her.
“It’s just darn near impossible to find a good daycare (in Ashland),” Albright said.
City grant program pays providers to lower child care costs
A new pilot program open to child care providers could eventually make a difference for child care providers, and eventually parents like Albright in the future. The program, which is accepting applications through Wednesday, Sept. 27, offers Early Childhood Affordability Grants to child care providers so they in turn can offer scholarships to qualified low- and moderate-income Ashland households seeking child care. Up to $120,000 total is available for the current fiscal year. Applicants can be either for- or non-profit, licensed child care providers.
“Our hope is this program can provide support to working families in Ashland with the help they need in these unprecedented times. It’s one way the City is working to address affordability in our community,” city Manager Joe Lessard said in a written statement about the program. “Studies show that children in working family households thrive with access to early learning opportunities.
“This program may also impact the Ashland School District and other local economic institutions and businesses, by helping them to attract and retain employees. Ideally, this program can help families choose to live and work in Ashland, and enroll their children in the Ashland school system.”
Memories of sudden provider closure motivates Councilor Hyatt
Ashland City Councilor Paula Hyatt, who chairs the council’s Ad hoc Committee on Affordable Childcare and Early Childhood Development, says the program is badly needed.
“Solving this problem is not an easy solution and it is going to take all of us,” Hyatt siad in a news release earlier this month. “This is delivering a message of hope, this is delivering a message of collaboration and partnership and possibility and it’s exciting!”
Hyatt spoke with Ashland.news recently about how she feels personally connected to the cause.
“My feet got put on this path due to personal experience to begin with,” Hyatt said. “My little one went to Schneider, which was an amazing preschool program that was run over on Quincy Street.”
Hyatt enjoyed having her daughter attend the play-based preschool there that she said provided “wrap-around” care for families. She recalls how traumatic it was for her own young family when it closed abruptly about five or six years ago.
“Unfortunately … it is very hard to find early learning programs and the model itself struggles to break even,” Hyatt said. “I believe that was the case with that program and it closed but it closed with very short notice.
“I watched as a lot of the families were scrambling to find alternate care with about two weeks notice,” she added.
Hyatt said she and her husband were financially able to adjust, but at the time, it was still a hard transition, especially since she didn’t have family living close by — not to mention the toll it took on her then-3½-year-old daughter.
“My little one stopped and tugged on my hand, and she looks up at me and she says, ‘Momma, I don’t get to go back, do I?’” Hyatt recalled. “And I had to be honest with her, and tell her, ‘no.’ And she sat down on the top step and she burst into tears.”
“I let her cry because I wasn’t going to tell her not to grieve,” Hyatt added. “Her educators were like extended family in her 3-1/2-year-old eyes.”
Hyatt, a financial analyst is addition to her role on City Council, started researching and cost-estimating what it takes to offer child care services.
Child care costs approach collegiate cost levels
Hyatt met Sunny Spicer, executive director for The Children’s Museum of Southern Oregon, along the way and learned all that’s entailed in the licensing process of running a program.
“When you start running these numbers … the programs struggled to break even, and they struggled to break even especially if you’re running toddler care or and/or infant care, in addition to the preschool,” Hyatt said. “It’s a model that nationally is a challenge.”
Spicer said the expense of child care rivals that of tuition at a public university.
Spicer has served more than 20 years as executive director of The Children’s Museum, formerly known as “KidTime.” The center provides both preschool and has a public component to its museum, which most recently celebrated the opening of its grand outdoor experience, which includes an Acorn-themed treehouse and bubbling creek.
Approximately 80% of those who attend the preschool do so with some level of public support, ranging up to 100% of the cost, Spicer said.
“In our region, what we’re finding is the average family often has to spend about 40% of their income on housing,” Spicer said. “And child care for one child frequently ends up costing them if they’re at about 200% of the (federal) poverty level, which is about the average family in our area, that’s 25% of their income. So before they do anything other than pay for their housing and one kid in child care, that’s 65% of their family income.”
The statistics specific to Jackson County are even more sobering.
“Jackson County as a whole only has enough capacity to serve 23% of the 0-5 year-olds in our region,” Spicer told Ashland.news. “It’s been that way for a long time.”
For that same 0-5 population in Ashland, Hyatt said only 40% of families with kiddos who can afford the full price tag of care have access to spots for their child.
“Similarly, those who need slots that have a subsidy associated with them, about 17% of families that need it can find care,” Hyatt said. “And that’s a lot of what’s driving that early learning desert.”
Spicer said there are factors that keep making it worse.
“The state’s been doing a decent job at making some things more affordable and better, but then there are some conflicting things that are making it more difficult,” Spicer said. “In our region, the cost of property and housing and everything else keeps rising faster than everybody can keep up with, so those that have operated home-based centers can’t really keep up with that demand because the cost of just operating a center is too expensive, because parents can’t pay for it.
“Oregon has the most, if not the most expensive child care in the country,” Spicer said. “The award for the No. 1 spot sometimes fluctuates, so, we frequently are the most expensive.”
Spicer sees the Ashland pilot program as helpful and a step in the right direction, even if there is room for growth.
“It’s able to help some,” she said. “It doesn’t always cover the full cost, so families are still left paying maybe more than they can still afford. I don’t like to argue against anything that contributes towards it, but the challenge is … it still leaves something on the table that is difficult and right now the capacity is still huge.”
At The Children’s Museum of Southern Oregon, Spicer said the organization has the capacity to serve about 260 students.
“We do the enrollment for about half that, the other half is done through a state agency because it’s publicly funded,” she said. “We do the enrollment for about 120-ish students, and we have well over 300 on our waitlist. So for every spot that we have available, we have more than three families on that wait list.”
“Our staff literally cannot teach and take care of the kids … and follow up with the families on the waitlist,” Spicer said. “Through no fault of their own, they’re in desperate situations … and we don’t have options for them.”
That means those families are left having to problem solve their way to child care.
“Families juggle around, they find friends, they find family,” Spicer said. “I think the unfortunate thing is … sometimes parents end up having to put their kids in situations that may not be the best, may not be the safest.
Impact on businesses trying to find employees
“It makes for a really unstable workforce,” Spicer added, noting the impact on businesses. “If they don’t have a good quality, stable place for their children to go to, then, what are the parents as employees supposed to be doing?”
Hyatt also sees the need for child care as a workforce issue.
“What the grant program is trying to do is navigate that gap …. (between) the cost of care, and then you have a partner that may want to work or a single mom that may want to work, but if they work, paying for the child care sucks up so much of the entry level income they may be making that it doesn’t pencil (out),” Hyatt said. “Right now, finding the right employee for various types of jobs is very challenging and one of the things that’s been proving a barrier to employees coming back into the workforce is early learning and child care for that 0-5 population.”
Both Spicer and Hyatt agree that it’s important to emphasize the need for foundational child care, which benefits society as a whole, not only the parents it directly helps. The hope is that the Early Childhood Affordability Grant program will open the door for easing the financial burden on providers and families.
“When we look at the goals of Ashland Council, which is very much economic diversification and working to improve our economy and also working to improve our affordability, early learning and child care come into the equation,” Hyatt said. “Because if you have early learning programs that are available to working families … if they would like to work, they would have a better option to work, which in turn improves the employee pool.”
“Housing and affordable workforce housing is in crisis mode,” she added. “And, moving the needle on affordability and access to that type of housing takes a long runway, so Ashland is on the tip of the spear finishing their housing production strategy.
“That plan spans a decade, so what other affordability levers do we have that can help our community and our working families with affording to live and or work here? One of them is early learning and child care, because if you can provide access to care … the idea is, it can help free you up for other costs.”
Hyatt and the ad hoc committee will monitor the grant program and report back quarterly so that the program can be effectively evaluated, including whether all available scholarship funds are put to use. A year-end program summary, along with scholarship data, will be presented to the City Council.
Back in Lithia Park …
Being a working single dad, Albright relishes any extra time he can spend with his young daughter.
Standing behind her as she swung on Sunday, Albright knelt down slightly to hear her say she was done with the swings, and she proceeded to lead him toward the climbing wall.
“You want to go climb the rock wall?” he said.
“Yeah, but with your help,” she said.
With dad as scaffolding, she used her arms and legs to climb up the wall and, standing at the top, announced, “I want to jump down,” before taking a short leap from the top into her dad’s arms.
Albright said he knows he’s not the only parent having a hard time finding adequate child care. He’s looking for child care where he can enroll her for one to two days per week.
“A lot of it’s just cost, if you want to do something that’s structured and easy, you just drop them off, pick them up, the cost is up there,” he said.
“I’ve been on plenty of waitlists,” he added.
Albright notes that, while he has a good job as a service writer in the automotive industry, the financial impact of child care is still steep.
“She has gymnastics, she’s going to start karate, all that fun stuff, and Ashland’s not a cheap town to live in,” Albright said.
“I make a pretty good living wage, but the child care portion of it kind of sucks up any extra,” he added. “Everything’s a lot tighter than it really should be. Inflation has not helped at all.”
Are you a child care provider interested in applying for this program? Or, are you a parent trying to find child care in Ashland? Ashland.news would love to talk to you. Email Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sept. 25: Corrected percentage of families seeking subsidized care that can find it; it’s 17%, not 72%.