Alaska’s Child Care Challenges, Solutions & Progress
Studies show that children with access to high-quality early care and education do better in school and are more likely to be employed, be healthy, and earn higher income later in life.
While providing high-quality child care to all of Alaska’s children may seem straightforward, it is actually a complex issue with challenges around accessibility, affordability, and quality. The McDowell Group has taken a closer look at the issue, compiling available regional and statewide data on child care to produce a dashboard that illustrates these challenges.
The good news is that Alaska is ripe with opportunities to increase access to affordable, high-quality early childhood education for families. Investment and innovative solutions are needed in order to realize the economic and societal gains that result from ensuring our youngest children get a solid foundation for life. And there is promising work happening across the state.
Challenge: The growing demand for licensed child care
Nearly 90,000 children under 13 years of age are potentially in need of early care and education services in Alaska, approximately double the supply of regulated slots.
The gap between supply and demand for licensed child care is increasing, especially for infant and toddler care. More than 60 percent of thread’s child care referrals are related to care for infants and toddlers. Child Care Aware of America’s interactive map shows those areas in Alaska with the largest gaps for this age group.
Another contributing factor is that communities not connected to a road or highway system struggle to meet local child care needs.
Solution: More partnerships between early education, business & local community to increase child care supply.
To increase access to quality child care, thread works closely with communities across Alaska on finding solutions.
In the North Slope Borough, thread partnered with the local government to establish the Barrow Early Learning Center.
The city of Juneau, an “island community” accessible only by air or sea, has one of the largest gaps when it comes to child care supply and demand. Despite having more than 900 licensed child care slots, two in five children in Juneau do not have access to licensed child care.
To address the issue, Juneau business and community leaders joined together to promote a tax initiative called Best Starts for Juneau’s Kids. The initiative will raise the necessary funding to double the amount of licensed, quality child care available in Juneau in the next 5 years. Additionally this approach increases school readiness by ensuring more children receive a high-quality early education.
These are two examples of the innovative ways early education is partnering with local businesses and communities to collectively strengthen private and public sector support of accessible, quality child care.
Challenge: Alaska’s child care costs exceed the cost of college
Child care is extremely expensive for families in Alaska, despite socio-economic status. In some homes across the state, child care costs exceed the cost of housing, food and transportation. The average yearly cost of infant care in Alaska is $10,957, while the price of in-state, public college tuition is estimated at $6,141!
Alaska’s families spend 14 percent of their household income for child care, compared to the seven percent target set by the U.S. Office of Child Care.
Educating children in a high-quality program costs more than in a basic program. Additional costs are associated with retaining highly qualified staff, training, and making continuous quality improvements to the classroom and curriculum.
Solution: Alaska finds ways to support families with child care costs
Several models exist for assisting Alaska’s families with the high cost of quality child care.
The State of Alaska provides a Child Care Assistance Program to increase access to quality child care. Through financial support for child care expenses, eligible families are able to work or participate in an education or training program.
In the North Slope Borough, the school district has made early education a priority with Pre-K available to all four year olds. Program costs are covered at 100 percent for participating families.
Challenge: Early education has a low-skilled, underpaid workforce
“At one of the child care facilities my child attended, turnover was a huge problem. There were some very dedicated folks at that facility who struggled with whether or not to remain in the early childhood field exactly because of the low wages. It is absolutely crucial that this problem be addressed.” — Caitlin Frye, parent
High quality child care is licensed care in a safe, healthy, playful environment. Professional early educators partner with families to help children develop intellectually, emotionally, socially and physically.
The number one indicator of quality is the teacher. The teacher’s level of education directly impacts the quality of education and the learning environment. Adults trained in early childhood education provide higher quality care, implement more appropriate activities and prepare children for school.
Yet, Alaska’s early care and education sector faces several challenges, including an entry-level workforce and low wages.
• The average annual wage of an early educator is $20,676 per year, only 40 percent of the average statewide annual wage.
Often this results in high-turnover in the field as well as poor continuity of care.
Solution: Systems and support to improve overall quality, including training and higher wages for early educators
Quality requires higher wages for those that work in the field. Early educators provide invaluable service to our families. With their wages some of the lowest in Alaska’s workforce, many are living below the federal poverty line.
To address the issue of low wages and turn-over in the early education field, Alaska is exploring wage incentive programs.
• HEARTS (Hiring, Educating, and Retaining Teaching Staff) Initiative, Juneau: Early educators can apply for wage bonuses funded through the Juneau Assembly.
• Alaska SEED ROOTS (Retaining Our Outstanding Teachers), Anchorage: During a 5-year pilot period that ended in 2017, the ROOTS Awards distributed more than $700,000 in wage bonuses to early educators based on education level and length of employment. This program significantly increased professionalism in the field and reduced turnover in Anchorage. During COVID, more $3 million Alaska SEED ROOTS awards were made to early educators, which significantly helped with retention in the sector during challenging times.
Two statewide systems are in place and evolving at both the educator and program level to improve the quality of Alaska’s child care.
• The System for Early Educator Development (SEED) supports early childhood professionals in their professional development planning and tracking. Financial assistance is also available for educators to pursue training.
• Learn & Grow, Alaska’s Quality Recognition and Improvement System (QRIS), provides child care programs with supports needed for continuous quality improvement activities. Supports like coaching, technical assistance, and training. For families, it is a framework to gage the level of quality in a program when looking for child care.
Local communities are also investing in quality.
Mat-Su Valley: In the Mat-Su Valley, community members and organizations are joining together to promote family resilience and reduce child maltreatment through a collaboration called ROCK (Raising Our Children with Kindness) Mat-Su. The goal of ROCK Mat-Su is to eliminate silos in the community and replace them with a collective approach to support child well-being.
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