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Child care advocates seek relief from pandemic funding problems

4,000 fewer Iowa kids enrolled in pre-k programs in 2021, compared to 2020.

DES MOINES, Iowa — With the Iowa Legislature back in session, there at least one topic that has the attention of both parties: helping solve Iowa's child care crisis. Advocates say the consequences could be felt for years to come if something isn't done soon.

Preschools in Iowa do not have guaranteed funding in the way that K-12 schools do, where having more kids in class means more money for the school. Because of that, COVID hit pre-k hard; 4,000 fewer kids were enrolled in preschool in 2021, compared to 2020. 

Those kids are losing out on more than you might realize.

"We see developmental delays. We see children that were potty trained forgetting to wash their hands, not even to mention the academic portion of their day. So there's a lot of catchup," said Kelly Donnelly, educator and director of Grace Preschool in Des Moines.

"Like the old muffler commercial used to say, 'You can pay me now or you can pay me later.' It's a lot more efficient, and good use of your taxpayer dollars, to do the prevention upfront, and that's what quality preschool does," said Margaret Buckton, a partner with Iowa School Finance Information Services.

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There is help on the way: the governor's office announced that pandemic funds will be made available to make up the $7.2 million shortfall in 2021's preschool budget. For providers like Donnelly, that's a huge lifeline.

"It's really reached that point when we're asking our community to donate money to make up for the deficit that we have because of those promised funds. It really hit me hard when that happened," she said.

There is a problem, though. 

The funding is only a stopgap measure, and providers do not want to have the same worries when 2023 rolls around. That's why they are hoping for action from the Iowa Legislature.

"We see those great economic and social effects in the research for kids. We really need to have a process that allows centers to serve all the kids that that show up that are ready to engage in those programs," Buckton said.

Child care enrollment in Iowa has increased in the last year. However, according to Buckton, the state is still 2,000 students under pre-pandemic enrollment levels.

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