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Advocates Hope New Center In Keokuk Will Help Address Growing Childcare Shortage

Southeast Iowa has lost more than 40 percent of its childcare slots in the past five years. Advocates hope a new center will help meet address what they say is a chronic shortage of care.

A new childcare center opening in Keokuk this week will eventually offer space to 110 children. Advocates say the program is a needed step in addressing what they call a chronic shortage

The Keokuk Community Child Development Center opened its doors Monday, starting off its enrollment push with a small group of 2 to 5 year olds, with plans to gradually scale up to full capacity and to begin accepting infants as soon as staffing allows.

A slate of community organizations came together to finance and open the center, including the Keokuk Economic Development Corporation and Keokuk Area Community Foundation. The push came in the months after the city's largest childcare centers closed amid concerns of mismanagement.

Keokuk Area Chamber of Commerce Director Shelley Oltmans played a key role in developing the center and is serving as its director. She says community leaders in the area and across the state are becoming more aware of the significance of childcare shortages. 

"It's not just about early childhood care, it's about workforce. It's about the economic viabilities of our communities. It's about the attractiveness of our communities." - Shelley Oltmans, Keokuk Area Chamber of Commerce

“Community and economic development organizations, school districts, community non-profits, other organizations in communities, employers are realizing that this crisis is impacting our community in more than just not having care for children, but also in the aspect of having employees,” she said.

In the context of Iowa's exceptionally low unemployment, Oltmans says a lack of childcare is a factor in the state's workforce shortage, and that's getting employers' attention.

“It’s not just about early childhood care, it’s about workforce. It’s about the economic viabilities of our communities. It’s about the attractiveness of our communities," Oltmans said. "Somebody who comes from outside and they can’t find childcare and they have a two spouse working household, they’re not going to come!”

According to a 2018 analysis by Early Childhood Iowa and Southeast Iowa Early Childhood, the region encompassing Des Moines, Henry, Lee, Louisa, Van Buren and Washington Counties collectively lost 43 percent of their childcare slots between 2013 and 2018. Each of the counties saw significant numbers of home-based programs close, as well as some preschools. 

"We don't know where those children are. We don't know what kind of care situation they're in." - Ginger Knisley, Director, Children First

In the same time frame, the cost of care in southeast Iowa has increased for both in-home programs and licensed centers. According to a 2018 analysis by the Iowa Women's Foundation, the annual cost of childcare for a single toddler, estimated at $9,984, outpaces the average cost of one year of in-state tuition at Iowa's public universities

"This expense is an insurmountable barrier for many families, especially single-parent households," the IWF report authors wrote.

Advocates say the shortage of childcare slots, compounded by the high cost of care, poses a safety risk for kids and a strain on families, especially working parents.

Ginger Knisley heads Children First, a children's advocacy and support organization providing services in Lee and Van Buren Counties. She estimates that about 40 percent of kids under the age of eight in southeast Iowa are covered by a regulated childcare center. 

"So then theoretically 60 percent of the children who could be in need of care, there are no available slots," Knisley said. "We don't know where those children are. We don't know what kind of care situation they're in."

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter