Children playing

Clatsop County is considered a ‘child care desert.’

For two-earner couples and single parents, child care is life and death. In rural Oregon, creating child care capacity that is dependable is a challenge. It is also a largely unseen, but critical, element in a local economy.

Without dependable child care, some men and women simply cannot work.

If that sounds familiar to regular readers, it should. We wrote those exact words back in 2010.

While the child care providers on the North Coast have changed in nine years, their importance has not.

The availability of safe, reliable and affordable child care is still a deal breaker for young working couples or single parents.

And there is still a dire need. Clatsop County is considered a “child care desert,” a bluntly worded state designation given when fewer than 33% of children have access to child care.

That’s why efforts to keep Shooting Stars Child Development Center in Astoria should be supported and commended.

During the past few decades, we have regularly reported how child care providers have a hard time finding, keeping and paying highly-trained staff a living wage and benefits while keeping care affordable for parents. Many report having difficulties staying afloat — not being able to meet their monthly expenses, in part because some parents cannot pay on time.

It has been five years since the substantial operation at Coryell’s Crossing closed. Since then, other small, private facilities that tried to fill that gap have come and gone. Soar With Us in Gearhart closed earlier this year. And while state overseers have identified some issues with Shooting Stars not complying with state regulations, we are hopeful those can be resolved in a manner that assures parents that it is a safe haven for their children. Frankly, its 50 slots are crucial in Clatsop County’s mix of offerings.

Over the years, studies have correlated children’s development success with quality child care. The best ones provide a safe learning environment led by enthusiastic, stable, well-trained staff. Staff-to-child ratios are of special importance.

Parents have become especially desperate to find child care outside of the traditional workday, which affects people working swing, night or weekend shifts.

So what is to be done?

Task forces have been formed in Clatsop, Columbia and Tillamook counties to figure out how to address and finance more child care and preschool options in the region.

The Northwest Early Learning Hub received a grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust for $100,000 to support them. A separate parent advisory board will help inform the task forces.

The initiative follows a feasibility study conducted in 2017 — led by retired Seaside principal Dan Gaffney — that looked at providing subsidized, high-quality preschool in Clatsop and Tillamook counties.

It followed the Pay for Success model, where private investors pay for social programs and get repaid with interest if those programs save the public money.

The one success story is Lil’ Sprouts.

Essentially, it is the only social services offered by the city of Astoria. It came about following collaborative efforts involving the city and some key large employers like the U.S. Coast Guard and Columbia Memorial Hospital. Clatsop Community College, some banks and some retailers were also key early supporters. One or more prior incarnations at the school district did encounter some difficulties, but the current formula appears solid. It is no surprise that it is a government-led activity, where the profit motive of the private sector is less relevant than the community service it provides.

There is no single answer. Private-sector child care must be encouraged. But it also must be appropriately regulated, inspected and all its staff vetted and trained.

Ten years ago, we wrote that “child care is a largely hidden ingredient that makes success or failure in the 21st century economy.” It needs to stay on the front burner as a public policy priority.

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