For Native Americans, unequal child care funding leaves tribes in need

Indigenous communities desperately need quality child care. And yet they are the least likely demographic to get it.

Tribal leaders have long known that access to childcare is key to ensuring 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, began her career in early childhood education by establishing a daycare center in the North Cheyenne Reservation, Montana.

Over the years, she says, little has changed in the way of getting more support from tribes to meet the childcare needs of their members.

“I saw very clearly the difference from early childhood [education] can do for kids on the road, for their parents on the road, and it’s an investment that it’s time for the country to make,” Smith told EdSurge.

Ensuring their child care programs get federal grants should be a simple process, right? Count the number of children served by a tribe, calculate funding per child, write a check.

But a number of problems arise at the outset. For one thing, tribes collectively receive federal dollars for child care based on a flat percentage, while states receive grants based on population.

But even though funding was based on population, there is no accurate count of Indigenous children. Neither from the Census Bureau, nor from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), nor from the tribes themselves.

That’s according to a report Smith wrote and released by the Bipartisan Policy Center this spring that examined equity in child care funding in Native American 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 built-in challenges all but guarantee that childcare services in tribal areas are and will remain severely underfunded, experts say. This is particularly problematic given that Indigenous families are more likely to struggle with poverty, unemployment and the lack of child care available where they live, the report said.

The devil is in the data details

According to estimates by the Bipartisan Policy Center, approximately half a million Indigenous children under the age of 13 need child care, not only for their development, but also so that their families can work. Nearly half are under 5 years old.

To complicate matters further, as many as 3 out of 4 indigenous children live off tribal lands, where they cannot be enrolled in tribal daycare. 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. “In general [the Department of] Commerce oversees the census, but it’s not just a commerce and data issue. It will take a collective effort by federal agencies to address this issue.

There are a handful of government offices — like the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs and HHS — that should be collaborating on the issue, Smith says.

Intersection of less funding and fewer jobs

As it stands, the number of tribal children helps distribute Child Care and Development Block Grant dollars, the single largest source of child care funding in the United States. Development Fund, which provides dollars to states, tribes and territories.

Unlike states, tribal communities do not receive their share of funds based on need. HSS is required to set aside at least 2% of discretionary child care funds and up to 2% of mandatory tribal child care funds. These amounts are not based on data, but rather on a “random percentage,” according to the report.

Take the actual dollar amounts received by the tribes in 2020. They collectively received $335 million in discretionary funding and $58.3 million in mandatory funding. Existing data on the number of children was then used to determine how much money had gone to each tribe.

In total, the Bipartisan Policy Center found that all tribes receive less than $600 per child per year.

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 childcare as other rural communities.

“You can have your kids taken care of in rural America, it just costs more,” Smith says. “We have to stop saying we can’t do it and [instead] say, ‘Here is the cost of doing it.’ Most of the tribes are not in urban settings, they are in rural America.

Among Indigenous parents, more than half say childcare responsibilities have impacted their ability to work in the past month, the report found. Those living on tribal land are more likely to agree, with 68% saying their ability to work has been affected.

Add to that another 32% of Aboriginal parents saying they have to drive at least 10 miles to get to their daycare. Then there is the matter of attracting and retaining qualified early childhood workers to staff these programs.

At the Oregon Department of Education, Crys O’Grady is a child care policy analyst and oversees federal child care grant funds. She is 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 that tribal communities face is serving members who move away from tribal areas. A tribe in Oregon could not provide childcare assistance to a member who moved to Portland for work, for example.

“Tribal members are leaving reservations to access jobs. That means [tribes] can’t serve them, and the federal government won’t let them cross jurisdictional lines,” says O’Grady. “As a member of a tribe and knowing my own community, it’s not just a childcare issue, it’s all about funding. Tribes are often an afterthought at the federal level, even though we were first here.

The long term vision

Kirsten Baesler, North Dakota State Superintendent and head of the state’s Department of Public Instruction, is familiar with working with Indigenous 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 will choose to care for their most precious gift, which is their child,” Baesler says. “Native American families are choosing not to re-enter the workforce after the pandemic due to [child care access].”

Baesler explains that a culturally relevant early childhood program makes a difference in the later success of Aboriginal students. At Standing Rock, for example, she says children who attend a Lakota language education program are better prepared for pre-K and their parents are more engaged.

Baesler has seen first-hand the impact that culturally responsive curricula have on older students. After he took office in 2013, his agency interviewed tribal elders in North Dakota to create a professional development program for teachers on integrating Indigenous culture into their classrooms.

The high school graduation rate for Indigenous students has increased from around 52% in 2013 to a high of 84% in 2019, she says. That rate fell to 79% 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 the tribes in the center’s analysis saying that the States approached them for help.

Baesler says more child care providers could meet the demand for culturally relevant programs if they were given more flexibility from HHS. State-approved materials are created around the experiences of white, middle-class students, she says, and that’s integrated into the types of stories and examples they contain.

Baesler uses his non-Indigenous family to illustrate his point about the program.

“It would be related to my granddaughter, but not the little boy from Standing Rock or [the] little girl from Turtle Mountain who doesn’t have the same experience,” Baesler says of the need for culturally relevant content. “I think that’s the only way we can see the same success in our 0-5 that we saw in our K-12.”

A way forward

Smith says there is already precedent for the federal government working in difficult situations to support child care: the military. During his 16-year career in the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of Family Policy, Smith recalls Congress wholeheartedly green-lighting military child care plans submitted by the department.

This is the kind of political will she thinks it will take to ensure tribal child care services get a fair boost. Contrary to his concern for military families, Smith writes in the report, “Congress failed in its responsibility to our first Americans.

“At the end of the day, these are all of our citizens, all of our children, and we have a stake in knowing if they are successful in life,” Smith told EdSurge. “We can’t continue to have these pockets of citizens who aren’t getting what they need to be successful. It seems a bit crazy that we don’t see it that way.

Nohemi M. Moore