Katy’s continued development and inflation have caused childcare costs to rise as early education centers make up for staffing shortages and retention efforts resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, childcare is considered unaffordable if it requires more than 7% of family income. According to the Economic Policy Institute, as of October 2020, a typical Texas family spent 15.7% of their income on babysitting for a child. According to this standard, 15.8% of families could afford babysitting.
While child care is an important service for working parents, it can be costly due to state staffing needs, officials at local child care and early education centers said.
At Vanguard Academy, an early childhood education center that has served Katy since November 2020, owner Hao Wu cited the need for teacher pay increases as a catalyst for tuition increases from $200 a week to $215 a week in April.
“We need to raise teacher salaries because of post-pandemic inflation [caused] all costs [to go] up,” Wu said. “We have to raise teachers’ salaries if we’re going to keep this teacher here.”
Both Harris and Fort Bend counties have recently made efforts to reduce child care costs.
Fort Bend County closed applications for its Child Care Voucher Program on August 18. The project, conceived and launched in early 2021, administered $2.4 million to more than 1,200 low- to middle-income families across the county impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On June 14, the Harris County Commissioners Court approved the use of $48 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds for a new child care and early childhood development program that aims to improve Harris County’s child care accessibility by 10% .
The three-year pilot program is designed to create more child care opportunities for children ages 3 and younger in Harris County communities. It will also fund childcare workers for better wages and childcare centers to recover from pandemic-related hardship.
Brightwheel, a childcare management software company, reported that the average price of childcare in the Houston area is $1,087 per month, an average increase of 8% from 2021.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index — a measure of average price trends — from May 2021 to May 2022, childcare and preschool costs nationwide increased 3.2%.
While parents are spending more on childcare than they were two years ago, childcare centers in Katy face a unique challenge due to the city’s continued development and Katy ISD’s appeal to young families, officials said.
Lou Ann McLaughlin, who has served Katy for 23 years with five Primrose preschools and childcare centers, said she has had to downsize the playground for two of her daycares because of land prices.
“To set up a child care center [in Katy] It’s more expensive,” she says. “Because of the land cost, we couldn’t get quite as much land for them [sites] We built in West Cinco [Ranch]. It will definitely get more expensive, like everything.”
Child care centers are required to have a minimum of 30 square feet per child, per Texas Health and Human Services Commission regulations. That means a facility designed to accommodate 100 children would need at least 3,000 square feet — not counting office space, entrances, and playgrounds.
Paul Ahren, who opened a Kids R Kids Seven Lakes facility in South Katy in 2021 and previously ran a Kids R Kids daycare in North Katy from 2004 to 2017, said inflation has increased annual tuition for his daycare at a higher-than-average rate.
“Normally, another five dollars a year would cover inflation, but we’ve made it a bit steeper [increase] this time because of gas and food costs,” he said.
Katy child care officials said they face recruitment and retention challenges and are struggling to pay staff a decent wage.
Ahren said he does not employ enough teachers to support his facility’s full capacity and that good teachers are harder to come by.
“We just barely reached breakeven; [we have] about 200 kids and we’re licensed for 360,” he said. “We want to be above ratio so we can do more activities in the space and not just have to manage kids.”
For Ahren, teacher salaries are higher than five years ago and more difficult to sustain. Despite recruitment efforts, it was difficult to find staff.
“A lot of people are looking for a lot more money than the childcare business can really produce,” Ahren said.
A September 2021 survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children reported that 86% of daycare centers in Texas were experiencing staff shortages; 79% of respondents cited wages as the biggest recruitment challenge.
Meanwhile, in May 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median annual wage for a child care worker in the Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land metro area was $24,150 — the ninth-lowest-paying occupation of the 709 occupations in the region that earn an annual wage.
Wu said inflation has made it harder to pay his employees a decent wage, making retention much more difficult. Bonding is especially important for parents who want to develop a relationship with the professionals who care for their children and provide stability for children, he said.
“On the part of the parents, they look for the centres [with] those teachers who have been there for years,” Wu said. “They don’t want this teacher to change very often. That is a big challenge for us.”
Resources and Funding
In August, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, along with District 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis and several members of Congress, announced the $84 million Brighter Futures for Harris County Kids program, which includes several early education initiatives and includes child care.
“This is a historic investment. Harris County has never had such a focus on children,” Hidalgo said in a release. “Each component of the Brighter Futures for Harris County Kids initiative demonstrates that local government can make a long-term difference in the lives of residents when working with partners, community members, parents, teachers and caregivers.”
Part of the three-part package includes the $48 million Child Care Contracted Slots program, which aims to create up to 1,000 child care slots for children ages 3 and under, with a focus on communities, where there are few to no such options.
The Slots program is also helping childcare centers recover and stabilize financially from the worsening effects of the pandemic, while supporting ongoing capacity building for childcare workers and requiring participating organizations to pay staff a minimum of $15 an hour.
Meanwhile, the Fort Bend County Childcare Coupon Program has issued nearly 75 coupons to Katy applicants, nearly 300 to Rosenberg applicants and nearly 225 to Richmond applicants, said Qaisar Imam, program administrator for the county’s coupon program.
“A lot of[s] of parents returned to the labor market after the pandemic and could not afford childcare due to reduced income,” Imam said.
Regional childcare providers like Ahren hope to foster relationships with KISD and local developers to work together and not in competition.
“Our goal is to work directly with the ISDs and say, ‘Look, we have a pre-kindergarten facility, so you don’t have to build another campus,'” he said.
Ally Bolender contributed to this report.