Report sheds light on child care gap across the Aspen-to-Parachute region

Data shows an uneven landscape between Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys

Laurine Lassalle
Aspen Journalism
Norma Álvarez dirige a Emilia Gonzales, de 2 años, en una lección en su casa mientras brinda atención a la primera infancia en Rifle, Colorado, el lunes 27 de febrero de 2023.
Kelsey Brunner/Aspen Journalism

Editor’s note: This story is the first part in a two-part series examining the child care landscape in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys. Part 2 will feature early childhood educators talking about their work and the challenges they’re facing. You can read the full story on Aspen Journalism’s website.

Data gathered from licensed early-childhood education providers in the Aspen-to-Parachute region shows that these operators have capacity for fewer than half of the area’s children under the age of 5.

The data also shows a disparity in the child care capacity available between the communities that make up the region. Providers between Aspen and Glenwood Springs have capacity for more than half of the children under the age of 5 who live in those communities. But in the Colorado River Valley — which is the area west of Glenwood Springs through Parachute and which has the most young children of any of the four subregions in the survey area — licensed child care capacity amounts to just 35% of children under the age of 5. There are also differences in the type of child care options available, with licensed in-home child care options, which are almost nonexistent upvalley, accounting for the majority of providers in Garfield County. 

“Sometimes families never get off the waitlist,” said Megan Monaghan, co-manager of Kids First, a city of Aspen department focused on child care. “They might put their baby — an unborn child — like as soon as they find out they’re pregnant, they might get on a waitlist, and by the time that they get called up and [are told], ‘We have space,’ the baby may not be a baby anymore.”

Monaghan added that many families get on multiple waitlists to increase their chances. “A lot of it is just luck,” she said.

The Licensed Provider Survey Data Report, released last month by Confluence Early Childhood Education Coalition (CECE), is based on a questionnaire distributed by CECE from June through September to the 71 child care providers licensed at that time with the state of Colorado between Aspen and Parachute. It asked the providers for information on capacity, tuition rates and other data points. All but one provider responded. Survey results showed that there is about one licensed spot available for every two kids across the region, with capacity constraint driven by low teachers pay and high cost of living in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys.

The Aspen-to-Parachute region counts 2,482 licensed spots among the 70 providers who answered the survey for a 4-and-younger population of 5,300, according to the 2020 American Community Survey.

Those licensed spots include 163 for infants, 444 for toddlers (1- and 2-year-olds), and 1,875 for preschoolers, according to the CECE report, which included an analysis of the survey data conducted by Aspen Journalism. 

CECE counts among its members 17 local public and private organizations, including governments, school districts, businesses and nonprofits. The group, which was initially called the Rocky Mountain Preschool Coalition, formed in 2017 to look at providing valleywide resources in response to the scarcity of child care spots. Among the solutions now being studied, CECE is examining the potential for creating an early-childhood education special district, which would be established under the framework put forward in a bill passed by the Colorado legislature in 2019. Such a district would require all three boards of county commissioners — Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield — with jurisdiction over the region to be served to approve putting a ballot question before voters, potentially in 2024, who would ultimately decide whether or not to create the district. Such a district would have a publicly elected board and with voter approval could raise public funding for programs benefiting children from Aspen to Parachute. 

“There just aren’t enough child care centers,” Monaghan said. “Any real estate in this valley costs so much that the smartest financial use for it is not child care. Child care does not make anyone money. There’s no private business owner who owns a child care center who’s wealthy.”

The availability of spots for infants and toddlers is even more scarce and expensive as an infant or a toddler requires a higher ratio of staff per child than a preschooler.

“Across the board, licensed providers are serving more kids than they would like to,” the report noted. “Providers may be licensed for a certain number of kids and [can] legally serve that many kids, but often, they desire to serve fewer kids in order to have lower ratios and higher quality of care. Due to the pressures of serving as many kids as possible knowing they struggle to find any care elsewhere, many providers serve kids closer to their licensed capacity than their desired capacity.”

In 2019, the Bipartisan Policy Center reported that Colorado’s statewide child care gap was larger than the 35-state average. (The study didn’t include most Southern states, and a few others including Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, Nevada, New Jersey, Minnesota and South Dakota.) According to that report, Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District had the largest child care gap in the state, with 45.1% of the children who couldn’t access early-childhood education based on the district’s licensed capacity and population.

Experts agree that it’s difficult to pinpoint what the actual licensed capacity goal would be, but Bell Policy Center analyst Perrine Monnet said that what’s important is the ability for parents to have the choice of where their children go. “It’s not to say that we necessarily should have more licensed care or that informal care is not something we want, but more that parents need the options and need to have the availability to choose the child care that is more ideal for them.”


Capacity picture differs throughout the valley

The CECE survey and asked providers for their licensed capacity forecast as of Oct. 1. Seventy local providers from Aspen to Parachute answered the survey.

In the Colorado River Valley, the 31 licensed providers located in ZIP codes 81635, 81647, 81650 and 81652 can serve 35% of the younger-than-4 population living in those ZIP codes. Local providers are licensed for a total of 879 spots, including 64 infant spots, 114 toddler spots and 701 preschool spots.

Meanwhile, downvalley, midvalley and upvalley providers can serve more than half of the younger-than-5 population living in their respective area. Downvalley providers in the ZIP codes 81601 and 81623 can serve 57% of that age group with 1,071 licensed spots for 1,885 kids, including 53 infant spots, 236 toddler spots and 845 preschool spots. Upvalley providers, who are located in the ZIP codes 81611 and 81654, count 323 spots for 610 kids younger than 5, including 30 spots for infants, 56 for toddlers and 237 for preschoolers. They can serve 53% of that population. Midvalley providers can serve up to 78% of that population living in the ZIP code 81621.  

If child care capacity is lower in Garfield County and especially in the Colorado River Valley, that’s mostly due to a larger population living in the area, resulting in a lower number of child care programs per capita.

Katie Langenhuizen, who served as CECE director until the end of February, said the data didn’t capture the commuting pattern in the valley. “There’s quite a movement of people moving toward their jobs, toward their incomes, which is typically upvalley or against the river flow.”

The type of providers also varies across the region. At the time of the survey, there were no licensed in-home providers — also called family child care providers — in Pitkin County. That can be attributed to the smaller homes and apartments in which many working locals live and the many state and HOA regulations regarding what places can be used for child care. 

“It used to be that you couldn’t be on a second story or you had to own the property, and they’re changing some of those things,” Monaghan said. Those policies have created barriers for people who would want to be in that industry but are not homeowners or live in an apartment. “It’s hard to run a child care center out of an apartment,” she said. 

Meanwhile, in-home care accounts for about half of the licensed providers between Carbondale and Parachute. That’s mainly a response to the child care crisis in Garfield County.

The CECE report indicates a child care shortage of 814 spots between Carbondale and Glenwood Springs and a shortage of 1,552 spots between New Castle and Parachute. The New Castle-Silt region is considered a child care desert, which is any census tract where the number of children younger than 5 is three times the number of licensed child care slots.

Kelly Esch, director of Early Childhood Network, a nonprofit organization based in Glenwood Springs that provides resources to families and providers in Garfield and western Eagle counties, said expanding current child care offerings by opening additional centers is difficult. Finding a building, whether that’s Aspen or Rifle, is not easy. 

“Many of these family child care [centers] had opened their homes because of the child care crisis in Garfield County,” Esch said. “They had children of their own and they weren’t able to find child care. So they started doing child care out of their home. [For] many of them, their kids are now older and they’ve just continued to do it, but that’s how they originally started, and it’s much easier to start a business out of your home instead of acquiring a building.”


Dashboard 2-9

The above story is the first part in a two-part series examining the child care landscape in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys. In the next story, we will hear from early-childhood educators about their work and the challenges they’re facing and explain our local child care crisis.

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