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Iowa House panel advances proposals from child care task force

Gov. Kim Reynolds announced new child care programs Wednesday at Sprouts Early Learning Academy in Carlisle.
Katarina Sostaric
Gov. Kim Reynolds announced new child care programs in November at Sprouts Early Learning Academy in Carlisle.

A panel of Iowa state representatives advanced the first pair of bills to come out of the governor’s child care task forceWednesday.

Thefirst bill applies to low-income familieswho get government-funded child care assistance (CCA).

It would allow child care centers to collect additional money from these families to help make up the difference between what the government pays and what the center charges families who don’t get assistance.

Families would have to agree in writing to pay extra.

Department of Human Services official Janee Harvey said child care assistance is available to “some of the poorest of the working poor”—Iowans who are at or below 145 percent of the federal poverty level. Harvey gave the example of a single mom with two kids who makes $16.50 an hour.

“If you move more into private market territory, allowing CCA recipients to make up the difference, what we’d anticipate is some of the working poorest maybe not being able to be financially competitive and actually pay that difference, which means that slot will not be available to them,” Harvey said.

Rep. Tracy Ehlert, D-Cedar Rapids, said the child care center she owns took a loss because she accepted families receiving assistance. She said she would like to be able to cover those costs.

“But I also was a working single mom who was on CCA myself and had my kids in a program, and there’s no way I would’ve ever been able to pay the difference,” Ehlert said. “And I did have a copay, and some weeks that was not manageable for me, because it was a decision between am I going to pay the copay, or am I going to pay food, or am I going to pay a bill?”

Rep. Ann Meyer, R-Fort Dodge, said the bill would not require families to pay more.

“CCA spots at their current pay rate will still be available,” Meyer said. “This is an option for families if they choose to take it. It’s not a requirement.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, no lobbying groups were registered in support of the bill. The United Ways of Iowa and Common Good Iowa were registered in opposition.

Last year, the Iowa Legislature passed a law that allows people receiving child care assistance to phase out of the program as their income goes up, rather than drop off of a financial “cliff.” Democrats had called for also expanding eligibility to enter the child care assistance program, but the Republican majority did not agree to that.

The second child care bill that advanced Wednesday would loosen the minimum staffing requirements for caring for toddlers.

The bill would change minimum staffing ratios from the current one adult for every six 2-year-olds to eight 2-year-olds, and from one adult for every eight 3-year-olds to 10 3-year-olds. Some see this as a key strategy for expanding child care availability in Iowa.

Harvey said DHS is already working on changing the ratios through the administrative rulemaking process, but DHS is recommending one worker for every seven 2-year-olds, not eight.

“Two-year-olds are at a very particular developmental stage,” Harvey said. “They are toileting. There is a high level of biting among that age, which does create risk to other kids.”

Several stakeholders at the subcommittee meeting said increasing staff ratios makes them worried about child safety and development, as well as staff burnout.

“This is a ceiling,” Meyer said. “This is not a requirement for child care centers to take this on. This is their choice.”

The Iowa Alliance of YMCA's and Opportunity Solutions Project, a group associated with a conservative think tank, registered in support of the bill. United Ways of Iowa, the Iowa Federation of Labor, Iowa Conference of United Methodist Church, and United Way of Central Iowa registered against the bill.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter