Like nearly every other family in Missoula, Ashley Ostheimer Hilliard, her husband and their four children had their lives upended by the coronavirus pandemic.
Securing quality, affordable child care was already a challenge for local parents — and a rising concern for employers throughout Montana. When COVID-19 concerns shut down schools and closed businesses, including the hospital kitchen where her husband worked, Ostheimer Hilliard, whose children range in age from 18 months to 12 years old, had to piece together a constantly evolving schedule to cover her part-time studies and part-time work hours, her husband’s new shift and their children’s schooling and child care needs.
Eventually, her husband opted to stay at home full time to provide care for their children while Ostheimer Hilliard started working full time to make up for the loss of income. Now, with the coronavirus threat receding, her husband has found a new job with a schedule that does not overlap with her own work hours; this way, they don’t have to regularly rely on outside child care.
Especially for families with more than one child, child care costs can quickly add up. “It can cost more than a mortgage,” Ostheimer Hilliard noted. “The monthly average is more than the monthly costs of grad school.”
In 2019, a Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce survey found respondents typically paid more than $600 a month for child care. Care for infants was even more expensive, exceeding $800 a month.
The 2020 Missoula County Community Survey found only 34% of respondents had a favorable rating of the availability of affordable quality child care or preschool.
Legislators took several potential solutions to the state Legislature this session, such as a promising proposal from Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, to establish high-quality child care business development grants. Other measures sponsored by O’Brien would have revised child care scholarship program laws, or created an interim study of child care and the workforce. Each of these bills died in committee.
One bill that did get legislative approval increases the number of children allowed in a home day-care setting from a maximum of six to eight. Senate Bill 142, from Miles City Republican Sen. Ken Bogner, also raises the group day care maximum to 15 children. By increasing the number of child care slots available, this legislation seeks to expand access in what’s known as child care “deserts” — communities where the demand for preschool or daycare exceeds the number of providers. However, merely increasing the number of children trades off quantity of care for quality of care.
In a move that surprised many, this month Gov. Greg Gianforte vetoed a bill that would have established a business task force to study child care and make legislative and executive recommendations. HB 624, sponsored by Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman, would have convened the task force under the Department of Labor and Industry and funded it through public and private grants and donations.
“Rather than confirm through further study the flaws within Montana’s child care system and the failures of past administrations to remedy these flaws, we must act now,” Gianforte explained in his veto letter dated May 10.
The letter says that Gianforte has "already directed members of my cabinet to strategize and collaborate with those most impacted by our child care gap to proactively build a system that works for our families and businesses.”
Last week, the governor announced four new advisory commissions, one of which will work to make child care more accessible as part of its larger mission to determine how to distribute federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. The 10-member Health Advisory Commission will make recommendations for how the Department of Public Health and Human Services should use its portion of the funds, including $112.5 million for child care block grants.
As set out in House Bill 632, the state legislation that outlines how the state will use federal stimulus and COVID recovery funds, this money can be spent on equipment and property improvements, worksite child care, licensing, and training and professional development.
Expanding existing programs, such as one that provides child care scholarships, would be a sensible place for additional funding, says Grace Decker, Zero to Five strategic collaboration coordinator for the United Way of Missoula County. But there are much larger interrelated issues that need to be tackled as well. Some places simply do not have enough providers, and the care that is available is either unaffordable or does not meet quality standards. An effective long-term solution to Missoula’s child care challenges must recognize the critical need for startup support and workforce investment.
Rather than hope a statewide task force will address the unique needs of Missoula’s parents, workers and employers, a local effort to tackle these child care challenges is getting under way. The Missoula Economic Partnership is spearheading a community economic recovery process, with child care a key focus for a local task force whose members include MEP head Grant Kier and Decker.
For Ostheimer Hilliard, direct conversations among parents, providers, businesses and local agencies are paramount, not just for achieving economic recovery, but for helping Missoula families meet their child care needs for the long haul. Her family used federal COVID relief money to pay for their three oldest children to participate in Missoula Parks and Recreation programs — whose staff she describes in grateful, glowing terms. Once that one-time money ran out, they worked with her to keep the kids in their favorite programs while accommodating a tighter family budget.
“We need those conversations to keep happening,” Ostheimer Hilliard said.