Politics

Here’s where Alaska’s governor candidates stand on the state’s growing child care problem

The cost of preschool child care is a growing problem in Alaska, one of 33 states where the annual cost of day care exceeds the cost of college tuition.

Here, the University of Alaska Fairbanks charges $9,870 per year; the latest available estimates of child care costs predate the COVID-19 pandemic and range between $10,000 and $14,000 per year.

Since then, costs have likely increased as inflation and labor shortages affect day care providers as well as other industries statewide.

In forums, debates and questionnaires, Alaska’s four candidates for governor have been asked what they would do to address the problem:

Mike Dunleavy

In the last two years of incumbent Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s term of office, he supported passage of the Alaska Reads Act, a large-scale education reform bill. While it doesn’t target child care, it does include additional funding and support for early education programs that cover children who are 4 or 5 years old and haven’t entered kindergarten.

Support for pre-K is limited to $3 million per year, and it’s voluntary — school districts don’t have to offer it.

In response to a question included in a questionnaire from Alaska news agencies, Dunleavy also pointed to $95 million in pandemic relief funds that were directed by the state to help keep child care businesses open.

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Applications for grants from the last tranche of that money, $24 million, opened this week.

Looking forward, Dunleavy said the state, the Rasmuson Foundation and a child care nonprofit called thread have joined together to develop a plan for achieving goals set out in a 2020 planning document.

[Compare Alaska’s candidates for Alaska governor position issue by issue]

“The health department is providing funding and policy team resources to this joint effort,” he said.

One of Dunleavy’s challengers, Democratic candidate Les Gara, has repeatedly criticized Dunleavy’s decision to veto funding for pre-kindergarten programs.

In 2019, his first full year in office, Dunleavy vetoed $8.8 million but subsequently reversed himself on that veto and others, citing public opposition. He vetoed additional pre-kindergarten grants in 2020 and 2021. Those were not reversed. He did not veto pre-kindergarten funding this year, though Gara has incorrectly stated at times that he did.

Bill Walker

Independent candidate Bill Walker was governor from 2014 to 2018 and lost his reelection to Dunleavy in 2018. He’s now seeking another term.

In the questionnaire, Walker said there is “no easy fix” for the child care problem and that if elected, he would create a working group to discuss four ideas: making private child care workers eligible for state employee benefits in order to encourage them to stay on the job; expand funding for “direct child care incentives”; use vacant state buildings for child care services; and create a trust fund dedicated to child care.

“We need more child care workers. They need to be paid a living wage, you need to make sure that they have some sort of retirement system somehow,” Walker said during a Sept. 21 debate hosted by the Alaska Chamber of Commerce in Fairbanks.

Speaking on Sept. 13 in Ketchikan, Walker suggested that direct grants to municipalities could be another solution that allows local communities to decide what child care approach works for them.

As an example, he pointed to efforts by the City and Borough of Juneau to subsidize child care in that city.

At multiple events, he has said that child care is a major economic concern because of its high cost and the way it can make it impossible for parents to work.

“If people can’t have a place for their children to be taken care of, it’s hard for them to go to work, and some of them are not. The cost of child care is such that some are saying, ‘Hey, I can make more money just by staying home, taking care of my kids,’” he said Oct. 5 in Juneau.

Les Gara

Democratic candidate Gara has said he supports the creation of a “universal pre-K program” that would be accessible to all youths, just as the public school system already is.

While a member of the Alaska House, he repeatedly co-sponsored bills to create such a program, but those bills were never heard in committee and never passed the Legislature.

In the media questionnaire, Gara advocated the creation of a state training program for child care workers and a wage subsidy program similar to one operated by the state of Tennessee. He also noted that Colorado subsidizes child care facilities’ rent and fixed costs.

“It’s going to take state partnership, it takes some investment,” he said Sept. 13 in Ketchikan, “but we should look and see what states are making it work, because Alaska is not making it work.”

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“We should make sure that there’s child care for families who cannot afford it, because that helps the workforce, and the health of children is part of what you do,” he said Sept. 21 in Fairbanks.

Charlie Pierce

In a video interview with the Alaska Children’s Trust, Republican candidate Charlie Pierce said that the cost of child care in Alaska is “difficult.”

“I would support tax credits or encourage employers to offer (child care) as a benefit perhaps,” Pierce said, but added that increased spending on child care would have to come at the expense of other items in the state budget.

Pierce has said he opposes new taxes or other revenue in order to increase services.

“I’d have to look at where we’re spending and look at what we’re going to cut in trade. We’re going to have to give something up to take care of these needs,” he said.

In the media questionnaire, he said only that if elected, he “will evaluate existing programs and make improvements and adjustments as needed.”

Originally published by the Alaska Beacon, an independent, nonpartisan news organization that covers Alaska state government.

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