Paul and Julie Amador pay hundreds of dollars a month for child care — and their first child isn’t due for another five weeks.
“Even though he’s not born, we’re already paying for it … to hold the spot,” said Paul Amador, a state representative from Coeur d'Alene. “So that kind of gives you an idea of how ... much in demand it is.”
The Amadors are paying half price — almost $350 a month — during the summer, which will be credited back to them when their son starts attending. When the school year starts Sept. 1, the couple will be charged full price to hold the spot.
Finding a provider, Amador said, was more difficult than he expected.
"There were not nearly as many options as we had hoped for," he said, "and not as many that ... were of the quality that we were hoping for.”
Day care providers in Meridian also see a high demand from parents for quality child care. A handful of providers told the Meridian Press they would welcome more centers opening up, even if that meant more competition.
"We have to turn away parents on a daily basis," Raisin’ Angels, LLC owner Jayne Fekete said. “The need in Meridian is so great."
The demand makes sense, she said, when considering how much Meridian has grown. The city, nearing 100,000 people, has almost tripled in size in less than two decades.
Raisin’ Angels and a few other Meridian day cares are expanding this year. Fekete will open her second center in the Paramount subdivision, doubling her capacity to roughly 270 children.
“I’m excited to not have to tell parents that I have a waiting list or that I won’t have openings for several months,” Fekete said.
A STRESSFUL SEARCH
Amber Hackenburg said she and her husband, Josh, looked for five to six months before finding a day care in Meridian that worked for them.
“It was really hard,” she said. “I remember really stressing those few months.”
They looked at in-home centers, but most were full or didn't have the structure the Hackenburgs wanted. The larger day care centers they toured didn't have a payment option for part-time care, Amber said.
“We had toured, gosh, five, six, seven places," she said. "I was just exhausted."
Meridian, though slightly larger than Nampa, has fewer licensed day care providers, according to IdahoSTARS, a public-private resource for families and child care providers.
Meridian has 47 licensed day cares, compared to Nampa's 64. In both cities, youth under age 18 make up one-third of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2010 count.
Meridian needs more day cares, said Robin Findl, owner and executive director of Kids Choice Child Care Center and Preschool in Meridian and Boise.
"What parents are facing right now is a definite shortage," she said.
The shortage is especially acute with infant care, both in Idaho and across the country, Findl added. Infant care requires a smaller staff-to-child ratio, so it's more expensive for the provider.
The waiting list for infant care is up to two years at Kids Choice and a year long at Raisin' Angels, according to the owners.
Fekete with Raisin' Angels said she feels bad turning so many parents away. When she does, she refers them to Idaho's 2-1-1 CareLine or to the IdahoSTARS website, which can help them find other options.
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, which issues day care licenses, does not have the data to determine if there is a shortage of day care openings in Idaho or local counties, said Ericka Rupp, manager of the department's Idaho Child Care Program. The state is working to gather this data and compile a report in October, she said.
AFFORDABILITY FOR PARENTS
The average cost of infant care at a day care center in Idaho is 10-12 percent of the median household income for couples and 30-33 percent of the median income for single parents.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' benchmark for affordable child care is 7 percent of a family's income. Only one state — Louisiana — meets that benchmark for center-based infant care, Child Care Aware reported last year.
As of 2016, Idaho's average child care costs were:
Infant: $533 to $832 per month
Toddler: $515 to $748 per month
4-year-old: $486 to $672 per month
The lower costs represent in-home day cares, and the higher costs represent accredited day care centers.
"I've heard from several friends who have either decided to stay home with their children or are currently weighing that option (quitting their jobs) because it takes a full time salary to pay someone else to watch their kids," Lisa Jordan wrote on the Meridian Press Facebook page.
However, Meridian City Councilman Luke Cavener added in a post, $900 a month for full-time infant care comes out to less than $6 an hour.
“At the end of the day, our parents can’t pay any more, and quite frankly, our child care providers can’t make any less," she said. "Our child care providers are not even making a livable wage."
Child care providers in Idaho, she said, make an average of $9.77 an hour.
That's a major challenge for the child care industry, Kindl with Kids Choice said.
“We’re losing really good people that actually went to college to become early childhood educators, and they can’t afford to be in the industry,” she said. “And that’s really sad.”
The average annual wage for day care workers is $19,480 in Idaho and $22,310 nationwide, according to Child Care Aware. Almost half of child care providers surveyed by IdahoSTARS and the University of Idaho in 2015 said they receive no paid benefits.
Hackenburg said she and her husband shopped around for a day care that offered learning structure — something a state day care license doesn't require. They chose Little Wise Owls Preschool Enrichment, an in-home day care in Meridian.
"I help prepare them for kindergarten and help teach them the basics," Little Wise Owls owner Dionna Franklin said.
Franklin, who has worked in child development for 34 years, said she sees a demand for educational child care in Meridian.
"I do a preschool program in my home," she said. "That's big for parents right now."
Idaho is one of five states that doesn't have state-funded preschool, according to United Way of Treasure Valley's 2017 Community Assessment.
There's a prevalent philosophy in Idaho that a child's early years of learning are best served by their family at home, said Amador, a Republican from District 4 who sits on the House Education Committee.
However, after serving his first term, Amador said he sees a growing call for the state to put more funding toward early childhood education.
Business leaders also have a role to playing in finding child care solutions, Oppenheimer said. Her organization, Idaho AEYC, is talking with the business community about possible options, such as offering child care benefits as part of their company's benefit package.
"Not only is it supporting their current workforce," she said, "but if our children have access to high-quality early learning, it also supports our future workforce."
'LOWEST STANDARDS' FOR LICENSING
When choosing a day care provider, parents should ask a lot of questions — to the point of being nosy, said Aubrie McArthur, a specialist with the Idaho Child Care Program in the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
“Parents can go into it trusting that their providers had a background check, but no one should go into child care thinking everything’s great just because they’re licensed," she said. "Quality at licensed facilities looks different at every place."
Hackenburg said she and her husband interviewed Franklin at Little Wise Owls for almost two hours before deciding to place their son there. She asked if there were guns in the house, what the emergency plan was, how many kids came at a time and what type of activities they did, to name a few questions.
"You either get the right feeling or you don't," Amber Hackenburg said.
The requirements to get a day care license in Idaho are the lowest in the nation, Rupp, the ICCP program manager, said.
"We have the worst standards in the country for child care licensing," she said.
Criminal background check on each staff member and any person 13 or older with regular access to the children, such as a provider's spouse. The background check is valid for three years.
Four hours of annual training for each staff member, or 12 hours of annual training if the center accepts Idaho Child Care Program subsidies
Compliance with city and county codes
Payment of a $100 to $325 licensing fee, depending on the size of the center.
The state day care licenses are valid for two years. Providers only need a state license if they care for more than six children.
A handful of cities, including Boise, have their own day care licensing system with more stringent requirements. Caldwell doesn't have a city license, but it does require day cares of all sizes to get a state license, Rupp said. Meridian and Nampa don't issue day care licenses, though there is a permitting process that day cares must go through depending on their size and business location.
Idaho drives quality not through its state licensing, but through its Idaho Child Care Program, Rupp said. The program administers federal child care subsidies to families. Any day care provider that accepts ICCP families must meet higher standards, such as a minimum of 12 hours of training per year rather than four. The state gives financial incentives to day care workers who complete the training.
"We use a carrot, not a stick," Rupp said. "A lot of states do the stick."
The federal government increased standards for providers in the subsidy program in 2014, the first time those rules had changed in 16 years.
“Rolling this out has been a significant improvement for Idaho," Rupp said.
Providers can also work their way up the state's Steps to Quality rating system. Parents can see which providers are in the program at idahostars.org. Six of Meridian's 47 providers are participating in the quality rating system, according to IdahoSTARS.