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Bill lets older teens work unsupervised at Iowa child care centers
GOP says it helps workforce; Democrats say it’s dangerous
DES MOINES — Soon, 16- and 17-year-old workers at child care centers in Iowa will be able to work unsupervised, and all workers will be allowed to oversee more children, if Gov. Kim Reynolds signs into law legislation headed her way.
The Iowa Legislature approved the bill last week with mostly Republican support. They said the proposal will help child care centers to address critical staffing shortages.
Democrats warned that the legislation will not address the shortage in a meaningful way because most centers will choose to not take advantage of the loosened regulations. And in the cases where centers do, Democrats warned it could create dangerous scenarios.
“Workforce shortages have been brought up quite often over the last couple of months, and I think this is a good answer to that,” Sen. Craig Johnson, a Republican from Independence, said during Senate debate on the bill. “It’s the option (for) an employer to utilize their workforce. … It’s an opportunity for more Iowans to go to work.”
Like many areas of the country, child care staffing, access and affordability are issues in Iowa.
According to state figures, almost 1 in 4 Iowans live in a child care “desert,” which is an area with a shortage of licensed child care providers. The issue is more pronounced in rural Iowa, where more than 1 in 3 Iowans live in child care deserts.
A family earning the state’s median income of roughly $77,000 would pay 15 percent of that income on child care at a licensed center, or 10 percent at a registered home, according to the state’s Child Care Resource and Referral. The national nonprofit advocacy organization Child Care Aware of America classifies affordable child care as 7 percent of a family’s income.
And 4 out of 5 child care centers nationally said they are experiencing a staffing shortage, according to a recent survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
The legislation would address only the workforce issue at child care centers. In addition to allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to work unsupervised, it would allow child care centers to operate with one worker for every seven 2-year-olds and one worker for every 10 3-year-olds.
The measure does not contain any provision to encourage the establishment of more child care centers, lower costs to families or increase child care workers’ wages. The Republican majority Iowa Legislature did pass in 2021 legislation that allows more low-income Iowans to access the state’s child care assistance program.
“This is a workforce issue. This is not the only thing that’s going to solve this problem, but it’s part of the issue,” Rep. Ann Meyer, a Republican from Fort Dodge, said earlier this year during House debate on the proposal. “It’s opening up more possibilities to child care centers if they choose to take them.”
Most Democrats were staunchly opposed to the proposal, saying it does nothing to meaningfully address child care issues.
“Iowa parents deserve better,” Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, leader of the minority House Democrats from Windsor Heights, told reporters last week. “Just because we don’t have enough child care spots, instead of just shoving more kids in a room with younger people, maybe we should be focused on opening more centers, partnering with more communities, making sure that across the state we’re opening up opportunities for affordable child care instead of just trying to make do with what we have.”
The legislation, House File 2198, was approved by both the House and Senate and is now awaiting Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ signature to become law. It is the only child care bill that has passed both chambers and made it to the governor this session.
“That sort of sideways look at addressing the child care crisis is indicative of what (Reynolds) and Republican leaders continue to do, which is to make piecemeal, tiny steps in the wrong direction and then claim victory over one of the problems,” Konfrst said. “I promise you, Republicans (seeking votes) on the doors this summer will say they fixed Iowa’s child care crisis. And my question for everybody at the door is ask back, ‘Oh yeah, why don’t I have a spot for my kid? Why don’t my neighbors have an opportunity to get child care so they can go back to work?’”
Sen. Zach Wahls, leader of the minority Senate Democrats from Coralville, said it’s not just Democrats opposed to the proposal, but that child care centers don’t want the changes, either.
“I would be mostly interested in what Iowa child care providers think. They’re the ones who actually deliver this essential service to Iowa families and children. And what Iowa child care providers tell us is that these (staff to child) ratios are dangerous, they won’t solve the problem. And many of them won’t actually change their practice, because they don’t feel like they can safely deliver that service,” Wahls said. “So I think that tells you everything that you need to know.”
There is no statewide organization representing child care centers that lobbied on the legislation, according to state lobbying records. The Iowa Alliance of YMCAs, Easter Seals, and the respite provider ChildServe registered in support of the proposal; among those registered in opposition are the advocacy group Save the Children, and the progressive advocacy organization Common Good Iowa.
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