Oregon’s $1 billion-per-year Student Success Act, passed this spring, has received lots of attention for increasing K-12 education funding statewide.

But $200 million of the business tax will go toward improving and expanding early childhood education in Oregon for kids from birth to age 5. A group of education and health leaders from Central Oregon’s three counties and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs — called the Regional Early Learning Hub — are collaborating to see what local parents and child care providers’ needs are, so more children can receive high-quality prekindergarten education.

Brenda Comini, director of the Regional Early Learning Hub, said she and others at the organization have two goals for improving early childhood education in the area: create more available child care slots in Central Oregon, but also make sure those who work in child care are being adequately paid.

According to the Oregon Department of Education, 27,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide don’t have access to high-quality preschool. In 2018, local nonprofit community assistance organization NeighborImpact determined that only 26% of children from birth to age 5 have access to child care in Deschutes County. An Oregon State University study in January found that 20% or fewer children from birth to age 5 in Deschutes and Crook counties have access to child care. That’s below the state average, which is 21%. Jefferson County fares much better — it’s one of three counties in the state, along with Wheeler and Sherman, that has an available child care slot for 33% of children ages 5 and younger.

Comini called Central Oregon’s child care situation “grim” and said the state is working to see if they can keep child care workers in the industry with better pay, while not passing along those extra costs to cash-strapped families.

“We are unfortunately seeing (child care) not being a stable business model for providers,” she said. “We’re seeing just as many go out of business as come in.”

Comini said the Early Learning Hub isn’t just interested in only increasing the amount of available spots — they want to make sure those spots are at stable facilities with well-paid, highly skilled employees.

“We aren’t interested in standing up programs that aren’t of quality,” she said.

Oliver Tatom, a member of the Early Learning Hub’s governance council, the Early Learning Leadership Council, agreed with Comini.

“We could rush at this problem and say, ‘There’s not enough day care slots, people need places to store their kid,’ and we could rapidly expand that,” he said. “(But) we need more high-quality education, not just more slots.”

This fall, Early Learning Hub staff are gathering information from families and child care providers to find out what they need and what obstacles they have to overcome to find high-quality child care, Comini said. Surveys are being mailed to families throughout Central Oregon in both Spanish and English this month. The Early Learning Hub is also hosting focus groups for child care professionals to find out how barriers to accessing child care can be broken down.

Questions the group is asking families will go beyond simply where they live, as people in Central Oregon often work, shop and/or access health care in different places than where they live, Comini said.

“If I have a little one and I’m driving from Redmond to Bend for work, is my preference to have my child in care close to where I work, so I can be with them off and on during the day?” she said.

The state set aside $12.5 million of the Student Success Act funds for professional learning development for early childhood educators. This is so they can take training courses, college classes and more to increase their skills and knowledge.

Kara Tachikawa — the program director at Bend-based Mountain Star Family Relief Nursery and a member of the Early Learning Leadership Council — said she was worried that only providing child care employees with more training but not higher paychecks could result in them leaving for K-12 education.

“Everything I keep hearing is, ‘we’re going to make training more available for providers,’ (and) that’s great, but that doesn’t magically create more money for child care providers,” Tachikawa said. “Unless we figure out a way to create an incentive for keeping people in child care, we’ll just keep training people to get better and better, then they move out of the field.”

Tachikawa also said she hoped the Student Success Act would earmark money for building new or refurbishing existing child care facilities. She said that one child care facility in Sunriver that recently opened had to spend $100,000 for remodeling their building’s interior, which was more than double what they had planned to spend.

“There’s not enough money that comes into child care programs to make it easy to expand or create a new building,” Tachikawa said.

On Nov. 20, the Early Learning Leadership Council will look over the data gathered this fall from parents and child care providers, and will give recommendations to the state for how their slice of the $200 million pie should be spent. The exact dollar amount that Central Oregon will receive hasn’t been determined yet, Comini said.

In early 2020, the state will review the committee’s recommendations and might ask for clarifications or tweaks to that plan, according to Comini. That spring, the state will officially determine how much money Central Oregon needs to enact the plan for expanding early childhood education, and changes will start to roll out in the fall of 2020, Comini said.

Tachikawa said she hopes the state’s final plan manages to balance fulfilling providers’ needs while keeping child care affordable for families. According to Oregon State University, the median annual cost of childcare for a toddler in Deschutes County is about $8,800 — 8% of the median annual income for a family of four in Deschutes County.

“(Right now), the only way that any new things happen in child care, or the only way we keep child care providers and employees in the field longer, is to charge parents more,” she said. “And they’re already beyond the max of what they should be paying.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7854, jhogan@bendbulletin.com

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