Child care provider support needed to get Oklahoma economy running

COVID-19 Policy Analysis: As our nation confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, OK Policy will be analyzing state and federal policies that impact our state and its residents during this national health emergency. These posts reflect the most current information available at publication, and we will update or publish follow-ups as new information becomes available.

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Oklahoma child care providers urgently need assistance. Licensed child care is the backbone of our state’s economy, and providers are playing an especially vital role during the pandemic. While many states took swift action to provide support, Oklahoma’s response has been inadequate. The Oklahoma Department of Human Services should be commended for recent policy changes to help some families pay for child care, but the department also needs to help stabilize the child care industry by using federal dollars to provide financial assistance to providers. 

The most crucial action needed is using federal funding to pay providers based on enrollment counts rather than daily attendance. DHS administers Oklahoma’s child care subsidy, which helps cover costs of child care for low-income working families. The vast majority of funding for this program comes from a federal grant, and Oklahoma received about $50 million additional dollars for the program through the CARES Act. Normally providers only receive tuition reimbursements based on daily attendance, but the department should temporarily waive this provision and reimburse providers based on total enrollment. This would help cover fixed costs such as rent and payroll, and help stabilize the child care industry so parents will have someplace to send their children when the crisis is over. At least 16 other states have already taken this step, and Oklahoma should follow their lead.

In the best of times, child care centers and family child care homes operate on razor-thin margins. As a result, Oklahoma has seen a 30 percent decline in child care providers since 2012. Nearly 140,000 Oklahoma children each week attend paid child care, and two-thirds of children under five need care so their parents can work. New estimates show that 60 percent of the child care supply in Oklahoma could be lost without sufficient intervention, which would be a staggering blow for an industry that provides a $900 million economic impact annually. Lack of child care providers would prevent Oklahoma from achieving a full economic recovery.

Estimates show that nearly a third of Oklahoma’s licensed care facilities have been temporarily closed since March 15, and they are having difficulty covering fixed costs. Providers that remain open are struggling financially due to low attendance and their efforts to maintain smaller child to staff ratios. Many have also struggled to secure adequate food, medical, and cleaning supplies. 

Oklahoma child care providers and advocates have outlined recommendations for state action (which can be found at www.okpolicy.org), hosted virtual town hall meetings, held a drive-thru rally at the state capitol, and have contacted DHS officials and lawmakers. Our child care industry and the future of our state’s economy are at stake. Now it is time for the state to listen.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rebecca Fine joined OK Policy in July 2018 as the education policy analyst. Originally from New York, she began her career in education as an Oklahoma teacher. Rebecca proudly comes from a family of educators, and spent four years teaching middle school in Tulsa and Union Public Schools. She graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in political science from the University of Rochester and received an M.A. in Educational Policy Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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