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Kentucky found a solution to its day care worker shortage. Other states could follow suit


Most of the federal government's pandemic relief money for child care ends today. That's going to hit day care - day cares hard. One idea about what to do now to make sure day care survives, make child care free for people who work in them. As NPR's Andrea Hsu reports, there's evidence it might make a big difference.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Where is Arlo? Where is Arlo? I don't know.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Ah, the sounds of day care - so sweet and yet so expensive, especially for parents of little ones who aren't yet in school.


HSU: Parents like Quartney Settle, who has a 3-year-old she adopted as a baby, and now she and her boyfriend are trying to grow their family.

QUARTNEY SETTLE: We realized very quickly that the cost of an infant in a child care center was going to break our bank.

HSU: She's thought hard about their options.

SETTLE: I mean, we could sell our car, I guess, to pay child care, but then how would we get back and forth to work?

HSU: For a while, she had two jobs - her dream job as a middle school social worker and a part-time job at this day care center in West Virginia. It's called A Place to Grow. But she recently made a tough decision. She quit her job in the middle school because after working for three years at the day care, she gets an employee benefit - free child care for her 3-year-old.

SETTLE: I mean, I took a pay cut of almost $10 an hour to be able to come here, but I had to, because by the time I paid child care, I wouldn't have come out any different.

HSU: The day care's owner, Melissa Colagrosso, is thrilled to have her. Getting anyone to work in child care is hard these days. Around here, there's competition from Sheetz and Walmart and...

MELISSA COLAGROSSO: The school system.

HSU: West Virginia now requires elementary schools to have teachers aides.

COLAGROSSO: Every child care director's a little scared of what that's done.

HSU: Colagrosso struggles to afford the free child care benefit. For babies, she only ever gives a discount. She says it would help a lot if the state provided the benefit. And as it turns out, that idea isn't so pie in the sky. In fact, it's already happening one state over. Jennifer Washburn owns iKids Childhood Enrichment Center.

JENNIFER WASHBURN: In Benton, Ky. We're in far-away western Kentucky.

HSU: And since a year ago...

WASHBURN: Any of my teachers who have children, they can work for me, and their children are paid for by the state.

HSU: She calls it a beautiful incentive. So what led to this? Well, in the pandemic, Kentucky saw a sharp drop in the number of low-income kids attending day care. And Sarah Vanover, who was then director of Kentucky's Division of Childcare, says that was true even after the state made many more families eligible for subsidized care.

SARAH VANOVER: We still didn't see an increase in our subsidy families. They weren't going back up. And we were like, what is going on?

HSU: Well, what they figured out was, yeah, people needed childcare, but they couldn't find spots. One reason was, in the pandemic, the state required smaller day care classes to prevent the spread of COVID. But a bigger problem was day cares couldn't find anyone to work.

VANOVER: They had empty classrooms with no teachers.

HSU: A lot of that, she says, had to do with the fact that Target started paying $17 an hour. Domino's Pizza was starting people at 15. Meanwhile, in Kentucky, day care teachers make $12 an hour or less.

VANOVER: So when you're thinking like, OK, I can work with all these kids in a very labor-intensive job and make very little money, or I can go to Target and stock shelves and make $5 an hour more, it's not a contest for working parents who need to support their family.

HSU: Vanover thought about the child care workforce. These are people who love kids, who have kids, who struggle to pay for their own child care. A year ago, she helped push through a rule change, making all child care workers eligible for subsidies regardless of household income.

VANOVER: Right now we have over 3,600 children that are being served because they have a parent who's a child care provider.

HSU: Of course, this costs money. Depending on the county, the state might pay a couple hundred dollars a week for infant care - and less as the kids get older. But here's the payoff. Child care centers are finally able to fully staff up, which means far more day care slots available, allowing far more parents to go to work. Sarah Vanover says word has gotten around about what Kentucky's doing.

VANOVER: I know that we've had over 30 states reach out to me and ask questions.

HSU: And that's not surprising. With no agreement in Congress on extending the federal relief funding for child care, it's up to states to think outside the box to ensure that children and their families are served.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE OLYMPIANS' "PLUTO'S LAMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.