Native communities are in desperate need of quality child care. And yet, they are the least likely demographic to get it.
Tribal leaders have long known that access to child care is essential to making sure their members can work. That was true four decades ago, when researcher Linda Smith—now director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Early Childhood Initiative—was starting her career in early childhood education by establishing a child care center on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana.
Over the years, she says little has changed in the way of getting tribes more support to meet the child care needs of their members.
“I saw very clearly the difference early childhood [education] can make for the children down the road, for their parents down the road, and it’s an investment that it’s time for the country to make,” Smith tells EdSurge.
Making sure their child care programs get federal grants should be a straightforward process, right? Count the number of children served by a tribe, calculate funding per child, cut a check.
But a number of problems present themselves at the outset. For one, tribes collectively receive federal child care dollars based on a flat percentage while states receive grants based on population.
But even if funding was based on population, there isn’t an accurate count of Native children. Not from the Census Bureau, not from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), not from the tribes themselves.
That’s according to a report authored by Smith and released by the Bipartisan Policy Center this spring that looked at equity in funding for child care in American Indian and Alaska Native communities. The center worked with the National Indian Child Care Association to analyze 184 tribal child care plans submitted to HHS for the 2019-2022 fiscal year.
These baked-in challenges all but guarantee that child care in tribal areas is and will remain severely underfunded, experts say. This is especially problematic given that Native families are more likely to struggle with poverty, unemployment and lack available child care where they live, the report says.
Devil’s in the Data Details
There are around half a million Native children under 13 who need child care, not only for their development but so their families can work, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center’s estimates. Nearly half are younger than 5.
To further complicate things, as many as 3 in 4 Native children live off tribal lands, where they can’t be enrolled in tribal child care. Even that number is just a guess, Smith says.
Why is the data so sketchy?
“I wish I could tell you the answer to that,” Smith says. “Generally [the Department of] Commerce oversees the Census, but it’s not just a Commerce and data problem. It’s going to take a collective effort on federal agencies to sort this out.”
There are a handful of government offices—like the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Interior Department and HHS—that would need to collaborate on the issue, Smith says.
Intersection of Less Funding and Less Employment
As it currently stands, tribal child counts help divvy up dollars from the Child Care and Development Block Grant, the primary source of child care funding in the U.S. Two funding streams exist under this grant—discretionary and mandatory funding that together form the Child Care and Development Fund, which provides dollars to states, tribes and territories.
Unlike states, tribal communities don’t get their share of funds based on need. HSS is required to set aside at least 2 percent of discretionary child care funds and up to 2 percent of mandatory child care funds for tribes. These amounts aren’t based on data, but instead are a “random percentage,” according to the report.
Take the actual dollar amounts received by tribes in 2020. They were collectively allocated $335 million in discretionary funding and $58.3 million in mandatory funding. Existing child count data was then used to determine how much money went to each tribe.
All said and done, the Bipartisan Policy Center found that all tribes receive less than $600 per child annually.
It’s a system that, Smith says, leaves Native American and Alaska Native families with fewer options from the start. Tribal areas already face the same barriers to child care as other rural communities.
“You can do child care in rural America, it just costs more,” Smith says. “We’ve got to stop saying we can’t do it and [instead] say, ‘Here’s the cost of doing it.’ Most tribes are not in urban settings, they’re in rural America.”
Among Native parents, more than half say that child care responsibilities have impacted their ability to work within the previous month, according to the report. Those who live on tribal lands are more likely to agree, with 68 percent reporting their work ability impacted.
Add to that another 32 percent of Native parents reporting that they must drive at least 10 miles to reach their child care facility. Then there are questions about attracting and retaining qualified early childhood workers to staff those programs.
At the Oregon Department of Education, Crys O’Grady is a child care policy analyst and oversees the federal child care grant funds. She’s also a member of the Monacan Indian Nation, and her department works with grant administrators at the tribal level.
O’Grady says a common challenge tribal communities face is serving members who move away from tribal areas. A tribe in Oregon couldn’t provide child care assistance to a member who moved away to Portland for work, for example.
“Tribal members move off reservations to find access to jobs. That means [tribes] can’t serve them, and the feds won’t let them cross jurisdictional lines,” O’Grady explains. “As a tribal member and knowing my own community, this is not just an issue in child care, this is all funding. Tribes are often an afterthought at the federal level even though we were the first people here.”
The Long-Term View
Kirsten Baesler, state superintendent of North Dakota and head of the state’s Department of Public Instruction, is well-versed in working with Native communities to improve outcomes. She sees a direct link between access to high-quality early childhood education and efforts to improve graduation rates among Native American high school students.
“If you have to choose between putting your child in substandard care or going to work, Native American families are going to choose to take care of their most precious gift, which is their child,” Baesler says. “Native American families are choosing not to re-engage in the workforce after the pandemic because of [child care access].”
Baesler explains that culturally relevant curriculum at the early childhood level makes a difference in the later success of Native students. In Standing Rock, for instance, she says children who attend a program with Lakota language instruction are better prepared for pre-K, and their parents are more engaged.
Baesler has seen firsthand the impact that culturally relevant curriculum has on older students. After she took office in 2013, her agency interviewed tribal elders around North Dakota to create a professional development program for teachers on incorporating Native culture into their classrooms.
The high school graduation rate among Native students rose from around 52 percent in 2013 to a high of 84 percent in 2019, she says. That rate dipped to 79 percent last year as North Dakota’s education system, like the rest of the country, felt the impact of the pandemic.
But the Bipartisan Policy Center report found that states rarely ask tribes for input on improving cultural relevance in their own professional development programs, with only 41 of tribes in the center’s analysis saying states approached them for help.
Baesler claims that more child care providers could fill the demand for culturally relevant programs if they were allowed more flexibility from HHS. State-approved materials are created around the experiences of white, middle class students, she says, and that’s baked into the types of stories and examples they contain.
Baesler uses her family, who are not Native, to illustrate her point about the curriculum.
“It would be relatable to my granddaughter, but not for the little boy at Standing Rock or [the] little girl at Turtle Mountain that doesn’t have the same experience,” Baesler says about the need for culturally relevant content. “I think that’s the only way we’re going to be able to see the same success in our 0-5 that we’ve seen in our K-12.”
A Path Forward
Smith says there’s already a precedent for the federal government working through tough situations to support child care: the military. During her 16-year career in the U.S. Department of Defense’s family policy office, Smith recalls Congress wholeheartedly green-lighting the military child care plans submitted by the department.
That’s the type of political will she believes it will take to make sure tribal child care is getting a fair shake. In contrast with its concern for military families, Smith writes in the report, “Congress has failed in its responsibility to our first Americans.”
“At the end of the day, these are all our citizens, all our children, and we have an interest in whether they succeed in life,” Smith tells EdSurge. “We can’t continue to have these pockets of citizens not getting what they need to be successful. It seems kind of insane that we don’t see it that way.”