Childcare in Montana

Jessica Long plays with a group of young toddlers in the sun outside of the newly opened Explore Montessori & Academy. Explore accepts children from 6-weeks-old to sixth grade.

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A recent economic report shows just how much money Montanans spend — and how much they’re losing — because of the lack of available child care in the state.

The report, conducted by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research in Missoula and sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, found that 57% of Montana families with kids under the age of 6 have struggled to find affordable, consistent child care.

Yearly, over 60% of parents with kids under 6 have missed time from work because child care wasn’t available, and 12% have quit a job entirely. In the study, titled “Lost Possibilities: The Impacts of Inadequate Child Care on Montana’s Employers, Families and Taxpayers,” a “parent” could be a biological parent, step-parent, adopted parents, a child’s guardians or anyone else who helps provide care to a child.

The wages lost during work hours missed adds up. When wages are lost through hours not worked, less tax money is collected by the state.

In 2019, the losses in wages to households with kids under 6 averaged $5,700. Statewide, over $145 million was lost in wages, which resulted over $32 million less in tax revenue for the state.

“We’ve known for a long time that Montana families are not able to access the type of quality child care that is needed,” said Caitlin Jensen, the executive director of Zero to Five Montana, a statewide organization that supports healthy childhoods for young kids through a variety of avenues. “We live in a state where there just is not the availability of quality child care to meet the needs of families.”

Montana is considered a child care desert, which means that there are not enough spaces in licensed child care centers for the number of kids who aren’t yet school-aged and who need care outside of the home at least some of the time. This issue isn’t specific to Montana: According to the Center for American Progress, roughly 51% of Americans are living in a child care desert.

And the pandemic has only exacerbated the need for child care, Jensen said.

“I think a lot of parents are having to make those financial decisions, and it’s really tough when you’re choosing between quality child care verses other things like paying off student loans and rent,” she said.

Two new child care options are opening soon in Bozeman, adding a combined 60 spaces for full-time child care that didn’t exist before. But the owners of both businesses said opening a new child care business isn’t as simple as it might sound.

“I spent over a year and a half searching for a house that I could rent where I could have the school,” said Yolanda Reyes, whose Spanish immersion school Hazelnut Montessori will officially open in November. Reyes’ Montessori school will have 12 full-time students between the ages of 3 and 6; two of those spaces are already filled, and she said she gets multiple inquiries a week about the remaining 10.

Montana has a variety of requirements for a licensed child care business, including outdoor space and accessibility requirements. Reyes said it was tough to find houses that met those requirements.

Part of her search for a home to run the Montessori school out of was hindered by landlords unwilling to rent to someone who wanted to run a business from home, Reyes said. Three or four times, she found a home that would work and a landlord who was willing to rent to her, but was stopped by homeowners associations that didn’t allow businesses.

Jessica Dehn, who just opened the 48-kid capacity Explore Montessori & Academy, said that there are lots hurdles and hidden costs, like city impact fees, that are involved with opening a larger child care center.

Dehn has also owned and operated Dino Drop-In since 2016. Dino isn’t able to take on kids full time because of the kind of license it has, Dehn said. So when the space across the street from Dino went up for rent, she jumped on it for Explore.

“I definitely saw a need for additional full-time care, because I get requests at Dino to do full time and I can’t accommodate those,” Dehn said. “(Dino) can handle most schedules, but not that very traditional, eight-to-five schedule.”

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Melissa Loveridge can be reached at mloveridge@dailychronicle.com or at (406) 582-2651.

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