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Amber Herbers schedules her days around her 7-month-old daughter’s nap times.
The Topeka area nurse case manager and mother of three started looking for child care for her infant when she was 3 months old. Her goal was to move her to day care when she was 6 months old.
But everywhere she called had a wait time that lasted around six to eight months.
The child care center Herbers’ two older children attend is working to expand its license to serve infants. But until then, Herbers is keeping her daughter home with her and adjusting her work schedule to meet her needs. Herbers said her 12-week leave after her daughter was born was unpaid.
She sees a ticking clock ahead.
The older her daughter gets, the less feasible it will be for her to work full time while caring for her. And if the infant room at her sons’ child care center doesn’t open by then Herbers may have to move to part time, which would be a blow to her family’s finances.
“It would be pretty rough money-wise to lose half of my income,” she said. “We would be pinching pennies, probably.”
Herbers’ situation is not unique.
Licensed child care providers in Kansas meet only 45% of the potential demand for care in the state, according to data compiled by Child Care Aware of Kansas, a nonprofit that connects providers and families. In order to meet Kansas’ full demand, the state would need more than 84,000 additional slots.
As pandemic era federal aid ends, the child care shortage in Kansas is an increasingly urgent focus for policymakers across the political spectrum who fear its potentially devastating impact on the state’s workforce.
The cost of care is rising as wait lists for slots grow longer. With more than half of the state’s demand unmet, concern is growing among advocates that the shortage is forcing parents to use unlicensed providers or exit the workforce because reliable and affordable care simply isn’t available.
In her reelection campaign, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, pledged to be the “child care governor” for her second term. She convened a task force at the beginning of the year to study the state’s convoluted early childhood system.
A study published by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank that focuses on cross-party solutions, in January ranked Kansas 49th in the nation for efficient administration of early child care and education.
Of available federal funds for child care, the report said, Kansas took advantage of just 76%. Among its recommendations for improvement was improved coordination between agencies.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers have narrowed in on the state’s regulatory framework, arguing the stringent safety and training requirements create unnecessary barriers to expanding capacity.
‘What do you do?’
As policymakers study solutions, painful experiences finding and keeping qualified child care in Kansas are ubiquitous. Providers who spoke to The Star said they had constant wait lists and had become accustomed to turning parents away.
“I don’t know what they do. I feel for them,” said Michelle Charbonneau, the Children’s Center director at Cloud County Community College.
According to Child Care Aware of Kansas, Charbonneau’s rural north central Kansas County is short 124 child care slots to meet demand. Charbonneau said she expects that to worsen as existing home care providers retire.
Stories of families underscore broad issue facing all corners of Kansas — too many children and not enough quality child care options.
Kansas has strict regulations on child care, including small staff to infant ratios making it more expensive for providers to take on children younger than 18 months old. But few Kansans can take parental leave for that long and spots are difficult to find.
In Wyandotte County, for instance, the cost of infant care represents about 43% of the median income in the county, according to Paula Neth, CEO of the Family Conservancy, a nonprofit which helps families access child care in the Kansas City metro.
“A lot of families, they just can’t make that work,” she said.
A fragmented state management of child care programs makes the system even more difficult for families and providers to manage.
Parents have taken a variety of approaches to managing the shortage.
State Rep. Tory Blew, a Great Bend Republican, said on the House floor earlier this year that she had begun putting herself on waitlists for child care even though she wasn’t pregnant yet.
Barton County, where Blew lives, is short nearly 800 slots, according to Child Care Aware of Kansas. Blew said she’s begun working out an agreement with her boss so that she can bring a baby in to work with her some of the time. But she can’t bring them in all the time. Her husband may be able to take time off work, but she still wonders what she’ll do when she goes to Topeka for the legislative session.
“I think that it’s a lot of family members are watching kids, I think that moms maybe are staying at home,” Blew said. “It’s just tough. What do you do?”
Parents share their stories
Parents can quickly move from a comfortable situation to sitting without options when their centers make a change.
Liz Steckel, the city clerk in Silver Lake near Topeka, brought her daughter to work with her for months after her child care center unexpectedly raised her monthly rate by $220 a month. Her daughter was a half-time attendee, going to part-time preschool in the afternoons.
The sudden cost increase, Steckel said, left her panicked and feeling like she’d been stabbed in the back.
“I didn’t have what it was costing already,” Steckel said. She looked for other options without luck. “Everything’s expensive right now and it just hurts.”
“Childcare has always been almost a privilege,” Steckel said. “I feel it’s been a privileged expense the entire time I’ve been a mother. It’s something you deliberately set aside money that you would love to spend on something else but you just have no other option.”
Kayla Pieschke, who lives in Topeka but works the night shift as a nurse in the Kansas City area, is now hesitant to take on young foster children because of child care. When she and her husband were assigned their first two foster children a nearby center had openings. But after they’d accepted two more foster children, the center closed abruptly around Christmastime in 2021.
“We had 4, 3, 2, and 1 and no day care with a two week notice,” Pieschke said.
The family found care for the older two children relatively quickly, but Pieschke said it took her three months to find care for the two younger kids. The four kids were spread across three centers.
On Pieschke’s days off it was manageable. But when she was working, her husband had to drive all over town getting everyone out of the car and then back in before he could go to work.
“It was a nightmare,” she said.
Pieschke, who has a newborn, is planning for care for her infant when she goes back to work. The provider for her 3-year-old foster child is hoping to open an infant room. Pieschke and Herbers are both planning to use that provider in Topeka, as long as the licensing process is successful.
If that center doesn’t get approved, Pieshcke said, she doesn’t know what she’ll do. An infant spot, she said, “is like gold.”
As a night shift nurse in Kansas City metro, Pieshcke said, she may work weekends or seek help from family. She said she’d probably contemplate whether she can arrange her schedule to ensure she or her husband are always home with the kids. But she questions whether it would even be safe to work a night shift and stay awake to take care of her child.
“It’s a decision that I don’t have to necessarily make as far as safety because I will probably just stay home and be broke. But there are a lot of people who have to stay up for a really long time and take care of their kids because they have to pay their bills and don’t have anywhere else for them to go,” she said.
Kristy Ramirez, a Wyandotte County mother, didn’t initially struggle to find child care for her twins. But one of the two 3-year-olds, her daughter, was developing speech too slowly and placed on an individualized education program (IEP) for special education. When that child became eligible for additional services through the local school district, Ramirez realized she sat in a gap.
She makes just a few thousand dollars too much to be eligible for her son to qualify for the program her daughter is in at the Wyandotte County Public Schools, especially since she is married and not a single parent.
But Ramirez said she makes far too little to afford comparable private programs. Whatever additional dollars her family had at the edges were eaten up by inflation and the pandemic.
“I’m not the typical cookie cutter low-income,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez would like to move her son out of his home-based child care into something that will provide a more comprehensive early childhood education experience like her daughter on the IEP has.
Her son is on a waitlist for the school district program. But he’ll only get in if students that financially qualify ahead of him don’t take the slots.
“What is she going to get that advances her but might delay him,” Ramirez worries.
COVID-19 closed several child care providers in Kansas. But it also created a new opportunity for federal funding that kept doors open for some and allowed them to improve services or supplement employee wages.
Many of those programs are now ending, creating a cliff that many worry will result in the shuttering of yet another wave of providers if a new program does not replace it.
“We may see many child care programs struggling to make ends meet on the revenue side or the business side of their child care program,” said Kelly Davydov Executive Director of Child Care Aware of Kansas. “We may actually see more child care programs closing with the end of those pandemic relief dollars.”
Numerous child care providers who spoke to The Star referenced an ongoing struggle recruiting and maintaining staff. Child care is difficult work that, more often than not, pays low wages and offers few benefits.
Amy Milroy, who runs the child care program for Advent Health, said during an early childhood education task force meeting that she couldn’t understand how any for-profit provider broke even, let alone made a profit.
Her program, she said, consistently ran in the red because of the cost to provide good care and keep rates reasonable. It’s sustainable, she said, because the broader healthcare system can take the financial losses in one small part of the organization.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average wage for a child care worker in Kansas in May of last year was $11.27 per hour. Speaking to Kelly’s early childhood task force last week, providers said they were consistently losing workers to the public school system and were unable to find qualified workers at the rate they were able to pay.
“I can go to McDonald’s and probably make more than most teachers are making right now sitting in some centers,” said Melissa Mosher, who runs the Calvary Lutheran Learning Center in Topeka. Mosher is working to expand her center to serve infants as well as older toddlers.
Mosher said the sustainability grants were helpful to her center, but it sits within a broader theme she’s become used to: government grants acting as a Band-Aid on an issue that run out and leave providers in the same place they started in.
As home child care providers are retiring, not enough new providers are stepping in to take their places.
Melissa Rooker, executive director of the governor’s Children’s Cabinet, which allocates a set of state and federal funds designated for early childhood, said the organization issued nearly $43.6 million in grants to individuals wanting to open centers or expand their capacity this summer. But based on applications, Rooker said, that funding represented only a drop in the bucket of the need and interest.
With $43.6 million to give out, Rooker said, the children’s cabinet had applications totaling $117 million in need.
“This is an expression of need for space. For physical space across the state to house programs of all kind,” she said.
In May Kansas lawmakers failed to override Kelly’s veto on a bill that would have changed Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s regulations for child care providers.
In an effort to open more slots, the bill would have allowed providers to take more kids at a time and reduced the training requirement for providers.
Though many advocates that focus on child care agree that regulations need to change, and KDHE is currently reviewing the regulations, they raised concerns that the bill would cause problems by solidifying new regulations in statute that could increase safety concerns for providers and children.
In her veto message Kelly said that the bill would reverse progress Kansas has made in ensuring child care is safe and responsive to the needs of individual communities.
Sen. Kristen O’Shea, a Topeka Republican, said the proposed changes to regulations will return whether KDHE handles it on their own or the Legislature returns to the bill next year.
“All the parties agree that the regulation needs to be cleaned up,” O’Shea said. Existing regulatory barriers, O’Shea said, blocks qualified professionals from joining the field and makes it difficult for centers to open or expand.
The bill, championed by Sen. Chase Blasi, a Wichita Republican, and O’Shea, was a first attempt addressing the child care shortage in Kansas. It won’t be the last.
The Legislature last year approved a tax credit for businesses who provide child care to employees. Some lawmakers have discussed expanding the program as a key answer to workforce challenges.
The Kansas Legislature will hold an interim committee this summer to study the issue. And Kelly formed a task force in January to study the issue.
The child care system in Kansas, and the funds to support it, run through several different agencies. Kelly’s task force was created with the aim of planning a new state agency or cabinet position focused solely on child care.
Though many providers are optimistic about the level of conversation happening at the state and national level on child care there’s skepticism that it will make a long term difference.
Many said that, ultimately, a higher level of priority needs to be placed on early childhood education.
Bipartisan interest in child care is expanding as it becomes an economic issue, as well as a social one. One parent staying home to care for children only worsens the state’s workforce shortage.
Shenika Lopez, who helps families navigate the child welfare system for The Family Conservancy, said paperwork and logistical delays with the Kansas Department of Children and Families act as a barrier to families who already qualify for subsidies.
For her own family, Lopez said, she had to take a day off of work to go sit at the DCF office and get her application approved. And she’s lucky to have the flexibility to do that.
Many families, Lopez said, encounter lengthy approval times during which they have to pay out of pocket. And providers often can’t afford to leave slots open for those families while they wait.
Lopez said maintaining support is also difficult. Parents have to reach strict work requirements and if a non-custodial parent stops paying child support the family loses access to the child care subsidy.
“I think that they’re too quick to snatch away benefits from families,” Lopez said. “I think they should spend more time processing applications instead of trying to take benefits away.”
On a daily basis, Lopez said, she hears from families who are forced to leave their children in less-than-safe hands because they cannot get approval for DCF subsidy for care.
“Lawmakers need to do more to invest state general fund dollars into a child care system,” said John Wilson, the president of Kansas Action for Children, a liberal-leaning policy group focused on government policies that impact the health and education of youth.
More government funding, Wilson said, would allow more centers to provide better care without increasing costs to families by either providing direct help to centers or increasing the number of families that could receive subsidies.
But a push for more funding is certain to have pushback in a GOP-controlled Legislature skeptical of bigger government.
Blew, the Great Bend Republican who spoke on the House floor about getting on waitlists before becoming pregnant, said the end of COVID-19 relief funds will help reveal the extent of Kansas’ need.
“It’s gonna be eye-opening and something that should be brought forward to the interim, to the task force, that this assistance really helped. This is what we’re looking at without it,” Blew said.
“Is there a compromise? Is there something we can do?”
Katie Bernard covers Kansas politics and government for the Kansas City Star. She joined the paper in 2019 and became the Topeka Statehouse correspondent in 2020. Katie was part of the team that won the Headliner award for political coverage in 2023.
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