When Hockley resident Kadie Sellers first began to search for child care options prior to the birth of her child, she assumed she would have ample time to secure a spot.

Sellers said she applied to a handful of child care centers around Tomball and Cypress two months before her child was born in January.

“I waited until I was in the third trimester of my pregnancy, which I thought was a reasonable amount of time because I was going to be on maternity leave for a few months,” Sellers said. “We finally got a call for a spot in October. [My child] was 9 months old.”

The overview

Like Sellers, parents throughout the state have struggled to secure spots for their children at child care facilities.

According to a July report issued by research and advocacy nonprofit Children at Risk—a third of all ZIP codes in Texas qualify as child care deserts, meaning there are at least three times more children eligible for early child care than the number of available child care seats.

Additionally, child care providers say the problem could be exacerbated by the halt of federal and state funding disseminated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 2020, Texas child care providers have received more than $4 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds. However, the relief funds expired in September.

While Children at Risk officials said it will be difficult to immediately determine the effects of the loss of funding, some providers have turned to other sources of state and local funding by partnering with charter schools. Officials also pointed to a pair of bills passed by the Texas Legislature this year that could help child care providers save thousands of dollars annually through property tax relief.

A closer look

In the Greater Houston area, 45 ZIP codes qualify as child care deserts, according to data provided by Children at Risk. Additionally, the accessibility of subsidized child care seats saw a roughly 29% decrease from 2020 to 2022, falling from an average of 38.1 seats per 100 children of low-income working parents to 27.2 seats.

To determine whether a ZIP code was classified as a child care desert, Children at Risk officials used 2022 U.S. Census Bureau data to define a child as eligible for care if they were aged 0-5 and both of their parents were employed.

According to the data, access to child care was particularly scarce in the following Greater Houston-area ZIP codes:
  • 77084 in Houston has 2,660 available child care seats and 5,705 eligible children.
  • 77094 in Houston has no available child care seats and 440 eligible children.
  • 77345 in Kingwood has 23 available child care seats and 918 eligible children.
  • 77355 in Magnolia has 264 available child care seats and 1,240 eligible children.
  • 77375 in Tomball has 938 available child care seats and 3,110 eligible children.
  • 77382 in Spring has 338 available child care seats and 1,419 eligible children.
  • 77521 in Baytown has 728 available child care seats and 3,291 eligible children.
  • 77365 in Porter has 482 available child care seats and 1,791 eligible children.
  • 77477 in Hockley has 138 available child care seats and 990 eligible children.
Kim Kofron, Children at Risk’s senior director of education, said access to child care has been a problem throughout the state for decades, but she said the issue was further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kofron said Texas had around 17,000 early child centers before the pandemic hit in 2020. While that number had fallen to roughly 12,000 in 2021, she said the number of providers has since rebounded to around 14,000.

Despite the increase, Kofron said more than 70,000 kids throughout the state are currently on waitlists to receive early child care. She noted many of the children live in low-income areas, which she said can sometimes make it more difficult to find nearby child care options.

“It's hard to make child care profitable anywhere you are, but it’s even harder to do that in a low-income area,” Kofron said. “We do find low-income areas to be more likely to have higher child care deserts than our middle income and more affluent neighborhoods.”

Kofron said the industry could take an additional hit with the loss of the COVID-19 relief funds. According to the nonprofit’s report, the relief funds helped support more than 80% of the existing child care centers in Texas.

“Really, what that extra money provided was a bedrock of funding that allowed centers to pay their staff more—to be able to keep tuition lower for families,” Kofron said. “That money is gone now.”

Looking ahead

Jaciel Castro—co-owner of Community Preschools, a nonprofit organization launched in 2020 that runs several tuition-free child care and early education facilities tailored to low-income families—said the loss of federal funds will hinder the organization’s ability to expand.

“We’re going to be able to maintain the seats that we’ve opened so far, but we’re not going to be [able to] open up as many new seats,” Castro said. “It’s going to be a lot slower now for us to open up new capacity.”

However, due to Community Preschools’ status as a nonprofit, Castro said the organization is able to secure additional funding by partnering with local charter schools to provide tuition-free child care and preschool services to students who are on those school’s waitlists.

According to Castro, the partnerships have made the nonprofit eligible to receive additional grants through the Texas Workforce Commission and the Texas Education Agency.

“I’ve been able to put campuses in Pasadena, West Houston and other parts of town, and still pull public dollars for those kids,” Castro said.

Additionally, Castro said education savings accounts, which are currently being proposed by the state Legislature, could provide an additional source of funding for organizations partnering with local charter schools.

“Currently, the reimbursement we receive from local schools is about $4,000, but the voucher would bring that up to $8,000,” he said. “That is a game changer.”

While the state Legislature has yet to come to an agreement on education savings accounts, Kofron said the passage of Senate Bill 1145 earlier this year could help some child care providers with additional property tax relief.

The bill, which will require voter approval during the Nov. 7 election, would allow eligible child care providers to reduce the money owed on property taxes. Depending on the facility, Kofron said this could reduce tax bills by tens of thousands of dollars.

“Is it the silver bullet that's going to fix it all? No, but it's a good step forward," Kofron said.

Still, Kofron said she was disappointed that the state Legislature failed to approve an additional $2.29 billion for early child care that was originally included in the state's budget.

The bottom line

Despite her struggle to secure child care for her baby, Sellers said she considered herself lucky to have family around to help care for the child after she and her husband returned to work. However, she said that did little to alleviate her frustrations with the application process and the uncertainty she dealt with for months.

“Your baby is the most precious thing you have, so you're particular about who’s taking care of them, but it makes it that much harder to find a place,” she said. “It’s a huge problem, and it’s really unfortunate, because there’s obviously a huge demand.”