Debra Brown and her family chose their home in Jefferson County to be close to a school that offered after-school kindergarten. Her son loves it. But now the school is targeted for closing, and Brown can’t find another one anywhere nearby.
“The best thing we could find was a school that shifts the kids to an Arvada YMCA, and then you have to pick the kids up by 5 p.m.,” she says.
Brown, who works fulltime as executive director of Good Business Colorado, is even more worried about what she’s going to do this summer.
“I’m literally terrified to start trying to piece together our summer plan, and I’m already behind the ball,” she says. “People are scrambling in January to get spots for summer. It’s like a big jigsaw puzzle, even for people that have the ability to spend whatever the cost of these programs is. For folks that are on a tight budget, it’s virtually impossible.”
The state is attempting to alleviate some of the pressure on parents with the free Universal Preschool Colorado program that will begin in the fall of this year.
That’s a step in the right direction, but it isn’t going to meet every child care need, says Kelly Hurtado, vice president of programs for Joint Initiatives for Youth and Families.
The market for child care is broken, says Sophie Mariam, labor policy analyst with the Colorado Fiscal Institute. Women, especially single women with kids, are the most burdened, along with Black and Latino families.
“Even though we feel like we’ve come a long way in gender equity, this is one place where women are still being held back,” Mariam says. “Even as social norms have changed, policies haven’t.”
And yet, a report issued by the institute on Dec. 19, coauthored by Mariam and CFI analysts Pegah Jalali and Chris Stiffler, concludes that investment in free and low-cost child care would pay huge dividends.
“We found that Colorado families that had access to free child care earn nearly $10,000 more on average each year than families that do not have access,” Mariam says.
The report also found that:
• Universal free child care would boost the labor participation rate of Colorado mothers by 11 percent.
• Affordable child care policy solutions include expanding the Early Childhood Educator Tax Credit; ensuring subsidy rates reflect the true cost of care; and moving toward full-time early learning for all ages.
• One of the biggest barriers to equitably paying for these investments is Colorado’s TABOR law.
• The median wage in most Colorado counties is not enough to make child care worth the high cost.
Child care that exceeds 10 percent of household income can lead to declining employment and wages, Mariam says.
“About 48 percent of all workers in the Colorado Springs area don’t earn enough to make working while paying for child care worthwhile,” she says. “This is higher than what we see for Colorado at large — 36.7 percent.”
Child care costs hit early childhood educators — who are nearly all female — hardest. The study found that 100 percent of Colorado early childhood educators who are paying for care for children of their own earn less than $12.32 per hour after accounting for the costs of child care.
The child care system is built upside down, Mariam says.
“Parents with children under 4 are the ones that are most likely to need support and access to affordable child care,” she says. But a 2021 study by the Brookings Institution found that public investment is almost $13,000 annually per child ages 6-18 but only about $1,500 per child through age 5.
“We’re already making these investments, but we need to enhance these investments and invest in younger children,” she says.
In Colorado, however, the TABOR amendment, approved by voters in 1992, limits the amount of tax revenue the state can retain and spend, and is a barrier to some of the financial solutions that could improve child care cost and availability, Mariam says.
“Even as social norms have changed, policies haven’t.” — Sophie Mariam
“We have these gaps in our care economy that continue to hold us back,” she says. “But we have this cap on revenue such that we’re not able to make these investments in our state’s future — in children and working parents.”
The CFI report concludes that “until we can enact significant constitutional fiscal reform, critical programs like early child care will continue to rely on regressive consumption taxes, or they will compete with priorities in Colorado’s already-tight budget.”
Other policy proposals recommended in the report include:
• Expanding the state’s early childhood educator tax credit. Early childhood educators currently are eligible for an income tax credit in an amount determined by the level of the professional credit they hold. A modest bonus of $1,500 per child care provider could reduce attrition in child care businesses from 30 percent to 13 percent.
• Making sure subsidies reflect the true cost of child care. Families of more than 1.4 million American children receive child care subsidies each month. But payment rates are low relative to market rates.
• Moving toward full-time early learning for all ages. HB22-1295 authorized 10 hours of tuition-free preschool for Colorado children 4 years old and older, but parents with kids under 4 are the most likely to need access to affordable child care.
See the full report at coloradofiscal.org.
Hurtado’s organization is working to implement the universal preschool program in El Paso County that will launch this fall.
Applications for providers opened a few weeks ago, and applications for families opened Jan. 17.
As the local coordinating agency for El Paso County, Joint Initiatives for Youth and Families will be matching families with pre-K providers in the coming months.
Of about 420 providers in the community, about 40 have already expressed interest, Hurtado says.
“In the first few weeks, this is a wonderful response,” she says. “Collectively, they are estimating a total of around 1,400 spots.”
The state estimates that around 8,000 children in El Paso County will participate in the first year of the program.
“It is exciting to be able to offer what we can that first year before kindergarten,” Hurtado says. “But we definitely need more affordable infant and toddler care.”
An early childhood workforce plan is being put together at the state level, she says, but the Early Childhood Workforce Task Force, a group of more than 30 El Paso County community leaders, isn’t waiting for that effort to bear fruit.
An effort to introduce early childhood programming into high schools is in its infancy, but a career navigation program designed to encourage early childhood professionals to stay in the field is up and running.
The program connects early childhood workers to scholarships, apprenticeships and career mentoring.
The task force received grant funding through Early Milestones Colorado for the program.
“We are collaborating with Adams and Denver counties to build that model and have plans to help scale it across the state,” Hurtado says
Colorado legislators have been leaning into the child care crisis in the past couple of years.
Besides the universal preschool program and the early childhood educator tax credit, they’ve authorized support for onsite or nearby child care at places of employment, moved economic recovery funds into the state’s child care system and funded grants for workforce development as well as training and technical assistance for family, friend and neighbor care providers.
“I think we’re onto the right solutions,” Brown says — but she believes legislators can do more.
“Can we look at ways to decrease regulations to make it less expensive for these facilities to operate?” she asks. For example, legislators could look at the regulations around sprinklers at child care facilities. “Obviously, you need to make sure kids are safe from fires, but does a home-based child care facility need a sprinkler system?”
But at the heart of the issue is underpayment of people in the child care sector.
“It’s not something that can be done without some funding from the state to incentivize people to be in early child care,” Brown said. “The free market isn’t going to solve this problem on its own.”
CHILD CARE BY THE NUMBERS
Parents who made career sacrifices due to child care issues during pandemic 12.4%
Parents who cut work hours during
Coloradans who live in a child care desert 5 out of 10
Cost of center-based infant care as
percentage of average household income 45.3%
In El Paso County:
Annual cost of child care for 2 children $18,665
Annual cost of child care for 1 child $11,571
Cost of child care as a percentage of income of single parent, 2 kids 40%
Cost of child care as a percentage of income of two parents, 2 kids 20%
Source: Colorado Fiscal Institute