child care in Oklahoma
Master teacher Carolyn Wood applies glue to an art project with student Brendan Compton, 4, at Children's Discovery Center in Norman on July 24. The childcare facility, which takes children up to 5 years old, is currently full, with a wait list of families hoping to nab a spot. (Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch)

(Editor’s note: This story was authored by Paul Monies of Oklahoma Watch and appears here in accordance with the non-profit journalism organization’s republishing terms.)

The unexpected closure of a well-regarded, highly rated child care center in Oklahoma City has put parents in an all-too-familiar, tough spot: scrambling to find places for their children amid a decline in the number of daycares.

For Jennifer Morton, the closure of Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City’s Child Development Lab School means she’ll likely have to take off work as she awaits word from other centers that have a waiting list. It’s not as simple as just placing a child in another day care. Waiting lists in top-rated centers can be around a year.

Parents were notified in late June the OSU-OKC center will close Aug. 10.

“There’s not a lot of options that offer as high a level of care,” said Morton, who has one son in an infant/toddler class and another son who attended but is now in kindergarten. “We had very little notice and not really enough time to get on the waiting lists for other places.”

The OSU-OKC lab dates to 1991 and expanded several times to take up to 60 children, from birth to age 5. It also was accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, making it just one of 10 accredited by the organization in Oklahoma City and 65 statewide.

University officials said the closure came from a change in strategic direction for the lab, which had outgrown its original mission to help train child care workers, nurses and emergency medical technicians. Although the university supported the facility financially through maintenance, administration and other costs, the decision to close wasn’t strictly financial.

“It wasn’t a matter of not having the revenue,” said Sandy Pantlik, OSU-OKC spokeswoman. “We grew it to be able to cover our costs, but it grew out of our original mission. This was not an easy decision for us.”

Meanwhile, Oklahoma City Community College closed its child development center and lab school at the end of June, with the loss of about 70 places. Other on-site lab child care centers have closed in recent years at Rose State College and Moore-Norman Technology Center.

The drop in child care facilities has put parents in a squeeze and led many to wonder how businesses that often charge more than a monthly mortgage payment can struggle to keep their doors open.

Since 2012, the numbers of centers and homes providing child care in Oklahoma has dropped 23 percent, from 4,200 to about 3,200. During the same period, the number of places fell 11 percent, according to data from the Department of Human Services. The state has licensed child care capacity of 121,000, down from 135,500 in 2012.

The closures come even as Oklahoma’s child care subsidy will get its first increase in almost a decade. Federal funding through the Child Care Development Fund will let DHS increase the subsidy to 65 percent of the latest market rate. A public hearing on the new reimbursement rates is scheduled for Friday.

The reimbursement rates are tied to the quality ratings for child care providers. The ratings range from one star, one star plus, two star and three star. Providers outside metro areas also get a higher, enhanced rate. Not all providers accept DHS subsidies, although almost 6 in 10 facilities do accept children who need child care assistance.

Kathy Cronemiller, who owns six child care centers and is on the board of directors of the Oklahoma Child Care Association, said DHS has enough flexibility with the new federal funds to increase the subsidy from 38 percent to 75 percent of the market rate.

“You look at the trends in the numbers (of facilities) and wonder what’s going on,” Cronemiller said. “Some people are making money, but clearly it’s not everybody, and some are breaking even. The subsidy hasn’t kept me in business, it’s the fact that I’ve been in business so long that my buildings are paid for.”

DHS spokeswoman Debra Martin said increasing the subsidy is a good first step after years of flat subsidies. The proposal provides at least a 7 percent increase for all providers except one-star centers. It also creates a single, statewide rate for three-star centers.

Costs for child care differ by age, location and type of facility. Infant care needs a higher staffing ratio and is costlier than care for older children. In 2017, the average weekly costs for care in a center ranged from $134 for children under 1 to $106 for 4- and 5-year-olds. For care in licensed homes, the average weekly cost per child ranged from $112 to $104.

For many families, the cost of child care exceeds other typical household expenses such as rent or a mortgage. In a recent survey, 22 percent of parents said they received some kind of help from DHS to pay for child care. That’s down from 38 percent in 2015.

DHS is looking at raising the income and co-payment thresholds for parents to qualify for child-care subsidies, Martin said. That effort is expected to be finished by next summer.

Cronemiller said revising the income threshold is overdue. Qualifying incomes for parents were last raised in 2007, and there’s been several increases in the minimum wage since then. Low-income parents are left to juggle care with family friends or relatives if they can’t qualify for assistance.

“How are we going to help anybody if the scale is outdated?” Cronemiller said. “All the research shows how important the early years, zero to three, are for development.”

child care in Oklahoma
Aidyn Grayson, left, and classmate Alex Lomanaco raise their hands during a song at Children’s Discovery Center in Norman on July 24. The 2-year-old class has about eight students and two teachers. (Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch)

Paula Koos, executive director of the Oklahoma Child Care Resource and Referral Association, said Oklahoma is among the top-tier of states when it comes to oversight and regulation of child care facilities. The association contracts with DHS to help match parents with child care resources, assist providers and collect data for policymakers and community members.

“That’s great for children because it means somebody is looking at whether they’re in a quality, safe environment,” Koos said. “But child care is a very difficult business to break even. You have to be a very good manager in order to make it work.”

Koos said everybody wants consistent, safe, quality child care for working parents, but the reality is a little different.

“For many families, child care is a patchwork,” Koos said. “Grandma keeps him one day, Aunt Sally the next, and then they stay with a neighbor next door one day. That’s all well and good, because all those people love that child. But do all of those people have training in first aid, CPR, safe sleep?”

Koos said that kind of care is less concerning than unlicensed facilities providing care. There’s no good way to track unlicensed facilities because many of them work on a word-of-mouth basis.

“There are communities where people know that a certain family takes care of children and they’re not a licensed facility but they’re the only facility in that neighborhood or that community,” Koos said. “I think some parents don’t understand sometimes how dangerous that is to have an unlicensed facility because things happen even in licensed facilities. Accidents do happen, and you want people to be ready and prepared to deal with them.”

Federal legislation passed in 2014 linked to the block grant directed states to establish minimum protections for child care, most of which Oklahoma was already doing.

“There are some providers who think that the state of Oklahoma is over-regulated and because we’re over-regulated, it costs them too much money to operate,” Koos said. “I feel like the regulations that we have in the state of Oklahoma are in the best interests of the children.”

Parents of children at the OSU-OKC’s lab school said it will be hard to find other providers offering similar levels of care and education. They’ll miss the community and the peace of mind they got from knowing their children were in a good learning and care environment. The facility has 11 employees.

Elizabeth Kanoski’s daughter has been at OSU-OKC’s lab school since she was 8 months old. She’ll turn 3 at the end of August. Kanoski said the search for a new place has been disheartening. Her daughter has already noticed changes as the facility starts closing down and talks of missing “her Cowboys” at the OSU facility.

“I haven’t found another facility that has that outstanding accreditation along with caring teachers. Their love for the kids really showed,” Kanoski said. “That facility means a lot to a lot of people.”