Alaska is in the midst of a child care crisis. Since 2019, the state has seen roughly one in five licensed child care facilities close, and researchers estimate that Alaska is losing about $150 million from the economy annually, due to parents missing work to watch their children.
Since the start of summer, a task force convened by Gov. Mike Dunleavy has been looking at ways to fix the state’s child care sector, for both providers and families.
State Health Commissioner Heidi Hedberg leads the task force and says the group is close to finalizing its recommendations after hearing from multiple focus groups and child care providers.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Heidi Hedberg: I think what we’re hearing from providers is they are passionate about serving kids, and they want to serve in a quality environment. And what we hear from parents is that they lack access to that quality childcare. I think part of it is, from a provider’s perspective, it’s around the background check process. There are some barriers within licensing. And then there’s the recruitment and retention of the workforce into that early childhood sector.
Wesley Early: So can you walk through where the task force is at now with recommendations and how these recommendations would help to foster effective child care in Alaska?
HH: Yeah, so the very first focus that we had as a task force was from that provider perspective. What are the things if you want to enter the childcare sector and you want to start a child care center, what do you need? And so starting, going through that licensing process, some of the barriers that we heard was around what type of license should I apply for. So one of the recommendations is providing more technical assistance to potential employers that want to start their own child care sector. We also found that there was a lot of questions on just navigating through that licensing process. There’s a lot of documents that are needed. Background checks, there’s a lot of conversations around background checks. And so some of those recommendations is around moving to electronic LiveScan fingerprinting, a portal to upload those background applications, so that the payment, the application and those electronic LiveScan fingerprints are all submitted at once so that we can decrease the time, the turnaround time.
WE: So it sounds like a lot of these recommendations are focused on child care providers. But there are still parents out there who are struggling with high costs and lack of availability. Is the task force looking at addressing those issues?
HH: So the big focus that we have right now, again, as I said, from the providers is the workforce, the licensing, the background checks. We are just finishing up those recommendations. And then we’ll be moving on to the next, sort of, three topic areas, which is looking at access to childcare, the quality of the childcare and then the subsidies. We know that there are many low-income or middle-income families that have more than one child and need child care. And so looking at the subsidies, the methodology around subsidies. One of the things we have a contractor working on is a cost of care. What does it actually cost to operate a childcare center? And what is the appropriate mechanisms for subsidies to sustain access to quality childcare?
WE: And so, what’s the timeline on these recommendations? And who would be in charge of implementing them?
HH: So the first three topics, we are rounding out those recommendations. We’re actually pushing those recommendations out for public comments. And then we’re going to be reconciling the public comments with the task force and making any modifying changes. The “who implements those recommendations?” I think it’s multifactorial. Some of the changes are regulatory, which is something the Department of Health has control over, and we will be working on those regulations. Some of them are large initiatives, specifically around workforce. I think there’s some great recommendations for around workforce. That will be a conversation with the Legislature. I think the governor is very keen on how he can really increase that access to quality childcare, and I know some of the big recommendations around workforce that will be up for consideration by the governor as well.
The governor’s child care task force is accepting written public testimony on the first draft of its recommendations until Nov. 27. Members of the public will also have a chance to call in to comment on recommendations during a virtual meeting on Nov. 29 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.