Parents seeking child care struggle with access, costs
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. (AP) —
As Megan Garman’s due date approached, she began making calls to several child care centers in the Johnstown area to get her daughter enrolled, but found herself signing up for waiting list after waiting list.
“It’s very, very stressful,” she said.
Garman began her search more than one year ago and is still waiting for a slot to open up. Thankfully, she said, a family member was able to fill in, but the working mother knows that’s not a permanent solution.
Every few months, she calls the centers again to see if her family has moved up on the waiting lists and hopes for the best.
“It’s like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel,” Garman said.
The Johnstown resident’s story is not uncommon in Pennsylvania, which suffers from a lack of access and affordability for child care and early childhood education facilities.
There are more than 500,000 Pennsylvanian children under the age of 5 and about 300,000 infants and toddlers who need child care, according to advocacy group Start Strong PA. Roughly half in both categories are eligible for Child Care Works – a state subsidized program that provides low-income families with access to reliable, quality programs.
More than 80% of children under 5 are under-served, the group said. Infants and toddlers face a similar situation with about 85% under-served.
Additionally, Pre-K for PA, another advocacy group, reports that 60% of 170,000 eligible Pennsylvanian children don’t have access to high-quality pre-kindergarten programs.
‘There’s a waiting list’
Garman said the stressful situation has caused her to consider quitting her job at Greater Johnstown Elementary School so she can take care of her daughter, which has left her feeling like she’s “stuck between a rock and a hard place.” The reason for the waiting lists, she’s been told by area facilities, is a lack of employees.
Lisa Zayac, another Johnstown mother, is in a similar situation. Her 6-year-old, Jamison Gibson, is enrolled at a Learning Lamp facility downtown, and Zayac is expecting her second child in September.
Already having a child in a program doesn’t guarantee a spot for her second child, though.
Zayac works for the kidney center DaVita and aims to keep working after giving birth. She wants her baby “nowhere else but The Learning Lamp.”
“I have a lot of trust in them,” she said. “They were great with my son.”
Zayac spoke fondly about the provider and said the early childhood education agency prepared her son well for kindergarten. She considers the employees there family and still relies on the organization for after-school care. That quality of service is why she wants her newborn in the same facility, she said.
At the moment, Zayac hasn’t found another option, but is on three waiting lists, just to be safe.
“Everywhere I’ve called, there’s a waiting list for all of them,” she said.
The situation is stressful for Zayac, who added that, if she can’t find additional child care, her family will be in trouble.
‘Know what to do’
A possible solution that could benefit some Johnstown parents and others across the state is if more funding were committed to child care and early childhood education programs, such as Pre-K Counts and Head Start.
In 2020, Pennsylvania spent about $334 million on pre-kindergarten, up by more than $30 million from the previous year, according to a recent study by the National Institute for Early Education Research. But additional funding would go a long way toward providing access to high-quality programs, the study shows.
The National Institute for Early Education Research recommends a state and federal initiative to achieve that goal. In Pennsylvania, that would mean spending about $250 million more per year for pre-k and another $57 million for the Head Start program.
Gerald Zahorchak, former state secretary of education and current chairman of the education department at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, is in favor of a funding boost.
“The key is like many, many things,” he said. “We know what to do. We just don’t have the will as government to do what we know will work and ultimately will cause much more productivity for our nation, our state, this region, this county, our local areas.”
The 2015 “Early Childhood Education” study completed by Sneha Elango, Jorge Luis Garcia and James J. Heckman, all of the University of Chicago, showed that early learning not only provides short-term gains, but also generates “success later in life, boosting outcomes such as education, employment, health and reduced criminal activity.”
“Early childhood education is absolutely essential for our country to do well,” Zahorchak said.
According to a fact sheet from Heckman’s website, www.heckmanequation.com, children who had access to early childhood education programs have lasting IQ gains and boosts in socio-emotional skills.
“We have to do a much better job at developing, supporting, paying for the early childhood care centers and education centers,” Zahorchak said.
Quality care has been shown to benefit working mothers who want to build skills and enter the workforce as well.
“It gives children from lower-income families the same chance as kids from a more fortunate family,” Somerset mother Deana Platt said.
Her three children have been enrolled in the various offerings by Somerset County-based Tableland Services Inc., and her youngest is currently participating in Head Start.
“They have been very helpful,” she said. “Not sure how I would have paid for those out of pocket at those times.”
Platt’s expenses cost her $48 per month because of a state subsidy. She said that, without the assistance, she wouldn’t be able to afford care and would be in a bind.
‘A good foundation’
According to the 2018 ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) report shared by the United Way of the Laurel Highlands for Somerset County, child care for a family with two children in a program could cost more than $1,100 per month, based on figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“I am truly thankful for Tableland and all of their services,” Platt said. “Between the housing, work and kid programs they offer, they have made a positive impact in our family’s lives.”
Anne Garrison, director of early childhood education at Tableland, described such programs as having a benefit that lasts a person’s entire life.
“It gives the country a good foundation,” she said.
Garrison said the programs offered by Tableland Services are free for families that qualify – based on income guidelines and funded by grants – and many are connected to area school districts. However, that doesn’t mean that every eligible family is taking advantage of the offerings. Garrison noted that more affluent families tend not to send their children to Head Start and other similar programs.
That doesn’t change the fact that those individuals need exposure to other “youngsters” and how to be part of a group, she added.
‘They aren’t alone’
For those who chose an alternate route, there are in-home programs, such as nurse-family planning, Tableland’s Family Center and Beginnings Inc.’s Parents as Teachers initiatives.
Parents, often referred to as a child’s first teacher, are provided with skills to support their children’s learning.
“It helps them understand they aren’t alone,” Beginnings Executive Director Paula Eppley-Newman said.
Parents as Teachers has been implemented in the area for more than a decade, serves children from birth to age 5 and is completely funded so parents don’t have to pay. Eppley-Newman said the program has a curriculum, but is specific for the individuals.
“We’re just there to support the family,” she said.
Eppley-Newman said Beginnings serves about 100 families per month with Parents as Teachers.
Pennsylvania offers a free service to locate quality child care and early learning programs called COMPASS. For more information, visit www.compass.state.pa.us/Compass.web/ProviderSearch, www.education.pa.gov and www.dhs.pa.gov.