It sounds a little like a car race, but it’s more like a care race.

Child Care 8,000 is one Colorado county’s ambitious new effort to create thousands of new licensed child care slots and significantly improve the quality of its child care programs over the next three years.

The initiative in Mesa County has drawn interest and praise from early childhood leaders around the state, with some hoping it could serve as a model for other Colorado communities. At the same time, there are questions about the feasibility of such a lofty plan in a county that has lost scores of child care slots over the last year and that isn’t enjoying the same economic surge as the state’s Front Range.

One thing everybody agrees on is that child care is hard to find in the western Colorado county where Grand Junction is the county seat.

A national group that has examined child care supply in 22 states, including Colorado, has designated large swaths of Mesa County as a child care desert. That means the number of small children far exceeds the number of licensed child care slots.

For local leaders, Child Care 8,000 is also a way to tackle other pressing problems in the 150,000-resident county — everything from low elementary test scores and high suicide rates to workforce churn. The fix, they believe, is high quality early education.

On one hand, it makes sense. Some of the most respected researchers in the field have found that top-notch early childhood programs yield a better return than the stock market by improving children’s long-term education, health, and employment outcomes.

“This is a community that’s stepping out and saying we need to address this now,”
said Kathryn Harris, president and CEO of the Denver-based nonprofit Qualistar Colorado. Harris has worked with project leaders to develop the plan.

“I think a big county push like this that is putting quality at the forefront … is critical,” she said.

Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said, “Boldness attracts enthusiasm, and it’s certainly a bold goal.”

Practically speaking, Child Care 8,000 is a heavy lift. Half of its two-part goal is to increase licensed child care slots from the current 4,200 to 8,000 by the end of 2020. That means hundreds of new providers must be enticed into a field known for low pay, high turnover, and a raft of regulation.

While the project’s current focus is on creating new slots for children from newborns to 5 years old, creating new slots for school children ages 6-12 is also part of the plan. About half of the 3,800 new slots envisioned will be for the older age group.

Jeff Kuhr, executive director of the Mesa County Public Health department and a chief architect of Child Care 8,000, said the 8,000 slots represent about 60 percent of the county’s population of children ages 0-12 — the approximate proportion who need child care either because both parents work or their household is led by a single parent who works.

The second part of the Child Care 8,000 goal calls for 30 percent of providers caring for young children to earn ratings in the top three tiers of the state’s quality rating system. This means dozens of providers — both existing and new ones — will need to undertake an improvement process that has been described as time-consuming and onerous by some who’ve gone through it.

Currently, only 10 percent of Mesa County providers have ratings in the top three levels of the rating system, Colorado Shines.

Kuhr said his vision for the project grew out of a longtime interest in the potential for child care to improve many aspects of child and family well-being, and by extension, community well-being.

The project, “is truly addressing social determinants,” he said. “This ends up in a healthier community.”

Having spent the last few months pitching the project, Kuhr knows there are some doubts.

“We have some people say, ‘Well, that’s an impossible goal,’” he said. “You can always adjust, but you have to start somewhere … In my book, if you’re making progress, the goal is secondary.”

Word of the project is still trickling out. Some early childhood providers in the county said this week they hadn’t heard about it.

One of them was Kathy Laro, a licensed provider who watches four children in her Clifton home and leads the Mesa County Family Child Care Home Association. When told about the initiative, she laughed and said, “I didn’t know what that’s even about.”

A few minutes later, she said, “If they want more of us, they’re not doing their best to encourage it.”

Laro cited the red tape of licensing rules and what she and other veteran providers sometimes feel is disrespect from licensing specialists or other authorities.

At its heart, Child Care 8,000 is a collective impact effort — an approach to complicated social problems that relies on collaboration by numerous public and private groups. In Mesa County’s case, partners include county agencies, the school district, the local university, the early childhood council, community groups, businesses, and some statewide leaders.

Kuhr and other local leaders plan to deploy a wide range of strategies to increase child care slots and raise quality. These include expanding and subsidizing training for prospective providers, streamlining the licensing process, increasing provider wages, and making back-office tasks, such as purchasing and accounting, easier for providers. While some of these efforts are underway, many are still in the planning stages.

What’s not clear is how much it will cost to jump-start a large crop of what are essentially new small businesses. Leaders will apply for some grants, but for now, they say there are no plans to pursue the kind of voter-approved tax measures that have underpinned efforts to support early childhood programs in Denver, Boulder, and San Miguel County.

For years, a Denver sales tax has funded preschool subsidies for 4-year-olds, and a Boulder County property tax has funded a variety of safety net programs, including child care subsidies for low-income families. Last November, voters in San Miguel County in southwestern Colorado approved a property tax that will create new slots for infants and toddlers, fund child care scholarships, and boost pay for child care workers.

Mary Anne Snyder, who leads Colorado’s Office of Early Childhood, said in an email that state officials are excited about Child Care 8,000 but can’t provide financial resources to support it. (Some state early childhood funds already flow to Colorado’s counties, including Mesa.)

A big slice of Child Care 8,000 hinges on getting local businesses to invest in child care — possibly by subsidizing child care for employees, creating on-site child care facilities, or donating money to communitywide child care efforts.

This kind of push for business community involvement has gained traction in Colorado and elsewhere as child care is increasingly framed as a critical cog in employee recruitment, retention, and productivity.

Bernie Buescher, a former Colorado attorney general who is working with Kuhr and other local leaders on the project, said business owners are feeling the effects of the county’s child care shortage.

“They are coming to the realization that in Mesa County one of the things their employees struggle with is their kids not having child care, and that means sometimes parents can’t make it to work,” said Buescher, who leads the Mesa County chapter of the business group Executives Partnering to Invest in Children.

But Buescher and other project leaders also know that recognizing the problem isn’t enough.

Tracey Garchar, director of the county’s human services department, said getting active involvement from business leaders will be a major challenge.

It’s critical to find partners who are “willing to see the value in this and step forward from the business community,” he said. “If we’re successful in this, it could help everybody. There’s nobody who loses from having adequate, accessible child care in Mesa County.”

Since Kuhr came up with the concept of Child Care 8,000 about a year ago, the county has lost more than 100 licensed child care slots.

A few child care centers have closed, but more troubling to some early childhood advocates is a new state law governing how many children unlicensed providers can legally care for in their homes. The 2017 law raised the cap to four, prompting some home-based providers to let their licenses lapse, allowing them to continue doing what they’re doing mostly free of state regulation.

Holly Jacobson, co-coordinator of the early childhood council in Mesa County, said at least a half-dozen home-based providers have not renewed their licenses in recent months or are considering it specifically because of the new law.

Laro, the provider who cares for four children in Clifton, considered letting her license lapse but decided against it because moving to unlicensed status would reduce the daily payment she receives for one of her charges — a child in foster care who Laro watches more than 10 hours a day — from the current $32 to as little as $9.

While the number of licensed providers in Mesa County who have decided not to renew because of the new law isn’t large — a handful of providers representing maybe two dozen slots — it’s unclear whether the problem will intensify.

Despite such obstacles, Jacobson said Child Care 8,000’s aspirations are necessary.

“We’re shooting high” she said. “But we need to shoot high because there is significant need in our community.”