SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Janessa Bixel understands teachers in South Dakota are known for being low on the payment scale. 

Bixel, the President of South Dakota Association for the Education of Young Children, said day care and early childhood educators are even lower than teachers.  

“They are with the kids longer than public school teachers are day-in and day-out,” Bixel said. “The first five years of brain development is so important; they’re establishing that foundation of learning by providing those play experiences for a child.” 

According to a national report, average teacher pay in South Dakota is at $48,984 a year. 

“Cut that in half and that’s about what early childhood educators make,” Bixel said. “And they don’t get the summer off. They work year-round for their wages.” 

Rebecca Kiesow-Knudsen, the Chief Operating Officer for Lutheran Social Services, said LSS has already increased wages this year. She said the longtime non-profit typically operates four child care centers, but two of the four programs are currently closed due to a lack of staffing. 

“We drastically under-pay our child care and early childhood teachers,” Kiesow-Knudsen said. “We feel we’re losing people because of that pain point from a pay standpoint.”  

Federal aid is on the way as Governor Kristi Noem announced South Dakota’s Department of Social Services will oversee the use of $100 million in federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act to stabilize and support a quality child care industry. 

Current licensed and registered day care providers can start applying for $60 million and applications will be accepted through February 25. Applications have to be submitted at the DSS website. 

Both Bixel and Kiesow-Knudsen said everyone involved in child care settings across the state are excited about additional funding coming soon. However, both were skeptical $100 million in one-time funds would solve the issues the industry has routinely faced. 

“As I think about this in the long term though, as a community, as a state, as a country, we really need to start having some conversations about how this industry can be fixed,” Kiesow-Knudsen said. “The model right now is broken.” 

A recent study from Augustana University showed how challenging day care is for parents in Sioux Falls. Officials have been calling day care shortages a crisis – a crisis that was starting before the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the issue.  

“The underlying issue is we’re not able to recruit staff to even offer the number of slots that we would be able to offer based on our program size,” Kiesow-Knudsen said.  

With staffing issues, wait lists for parents are common. The Augustana University study said 58% of all surveyed providers had a waiting list for children 3 to 5. That kind of demand has been felt at LSS, Kiesow-Knudsen said.

“It’s hitting employers hard,” Kiesow-Knudsen said. “It’s real easy to take child care for granted as something that’s always been something in our community. We’re really at the brink; it’s a crisis situation for providers right now.” 

Bixel said South Dakota is suspected to have upwards to 2,000 unregistered child care providers across the state. DSS lists 787 registered day care providers with 364 listed as family day cares with one to 12 children.

“A decade ago, we had 800 or 900 registered day care providers. Last count, we’re around 360,” Bixel said. “I don’t think regulation means you are providing any better or worse care, but it does provide more opportunities for you like this funding.” 

Bixel called the $100 million funding “a good start” and emphasized the scholarships Noem announced to train child care providers. She said the Child Development Associate program will be funded and full of applicants across the state. 

SDAEYC, Bixel said, advocates support for all child care facilities, including family child care homes, preschools, child care centers of all sizes and faith-based child care. 

“I think quality care can happen in any type of facility,” said Bixel, who added her organization has called for more regulations with early childhood education and workforce support. 

Mainly, she’d like to see child care workers at equal pay to fast food workers. 

“We think of ourselves as professionals, because many of us do have degrees,” said Bixel, who added she has a Master’s degree but never made more than $15 an hour as an early child educator. 

“I think the field gets viewed much more as a profession when the whole community gets behind them and helps show that,” Bixel said. 

Margins for profits for some day cares can be thin, but Bixel said she believes day cares can still work as a business. She said she recently helped Candyland Child Care start in Box Elder.

Bixel also pointed to Rapid City’s “Starting Strong” program as an example for parents to apply for funding to send 3- and 4-year-olds for child care and preschools.

Kiesow-Knudsen said there’ll be more conversations and ideas to discuss after the federal aid goes out.

“We’ll be looking to our leaders to try to come up with different, creative solutions to address the underlying issues that industry is facing,” Kiesow-Knudsen said.