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The state of Montana has approved $18 million in grants from federal funds for 31 child care providers, health care organizations, community groups and local governments in an effort to expand child care services, Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office announced Wednesday. 

The “innovation” grants range between $142,000 and $1 million. Applications were asked to demonstrate how they would use the funds to improve child care affordability, increase access, and provide high quality and sustainable services. 

The governor’s office cited Browning Public Schools as a group that plans to use its $207,000 grant for hiring and retaining more child care providers. It also said Family Promise of Gallatin Valley Inc. will use its nearly $990,000 grant to expand its child care center for infants, toddlers and preschoolers.   

“For too long, Montana’s working families faced a shortage of child care providers, putting them between a rock and a hard place,” Gianforte said in a Wednesday press release. “To increase access to sustainable, quality child care and address this longstanding problem, we’re investing in quality providers who operate in child care deserts throughout our state.” 

Tori Sproles, executive director of the advocacy group Child Care Connections, said the funds will go a long way to help their partners in Gallatin, Park, Lewis and Clark, and Jefferson counties provide better child care. She said the grants could be used to expand staffing outside of traditional work hours, or help an employer purchase a certain number of spots at child care centers for their workforce.

“The innovation grant was really meant to bring the community into the problem. How do we address child care issues collaboratively and innovatively,” Sproles said. “It’s going to make an impact.”

The press release did not say when the department plans to distribute the funds to recipients. A spokesperson for the Department of Public Health and Human Services said the agency expects to finalize contracts with the grantees within 30 days. The grants cycle is scheduled to last until September 2024.

Child care providers have been under acute strain since the COVID-19 pandemic, in part because of increasing health and safety expenses, a persistent struggle to hire and retain qualified staff, and the strict staff-to-child ratios required to maintain licenses. Child care centers in rural areas can be few and far between. In more urban areas, providers like Family Promise of Gallatin Valley report long waitlists, with demand outpacing available slots. 

The price tag for child care is also a high concern for many families across Montana, often putting the service out of reach for low-income and working families. A February report from the national advocacy group Child Care Aware found that the average cost of child care in Montana in 2020 — the first year of the pandemic, before inflation became a national concern — was more than $9,300 annually. 

The full list of child care innovation grantees and their respective award amounts has been posted on the state health department’s website. The counties that include grant recipients are Glacier, Gallatin, Missoula, Mineral, Ravalli, Lewis and Clark, Beaverhead, Carter, Flathead, Granite, Yellowstone, Jefferson, Carbon, Deer Lodge, Sweet Grass, Fergus, Judith Basin, Petroleum, and Cascade. 

Gianforte’s office said the recommendation to use the federal American Rescue Plan Act to create these child care providers came from the bipartisan ARPA Health Advisory Commission made up of lawmakers and executive staff members. 

That committee also recommended grants to help stabilize child care services that recipients could use for staff pay, bonuses, recruitment, rent or mortgage, and other expenses related to COVID-19. The final application period for those grants closed last Friday. 

Gianforte’s office said Wednesday that two-thirds of the $61 million total earmarked for those stabilization grants has been allocated. A summary of ARPA spending from early August said roughly $30 million of child care stabilization grants and other supports had been paid out to recipients.

House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said Wednesday the governor’s announcement was good news for the 19 counties with successful applicants, but that she’s been frustrated by how long it has taken the Gianforte administration to distribute the federal emergency funds.

“We approved this a year ago,” Abbott said, referring to a vote taken by lawmakers who sit on the ARPA Health Advisory Commission. “When you have money that is designed for relief and you have people across the state that are begging for relief, you want to see that money move efficiently and effectively.”

Charlie Brereton, the new director of Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services tapped to replace former director Adam Meier, said in the Wednesday press release that the innovation grants would help fill in gaps in child care deserts and increase the capacity of providers around Montana. 

“We look forward to these numerous projects moving forward to meet existing needs,” Brereton said. “We appreciate the careful thought and planning that went into the applications that we believe will make a tremendous difference in Montana.”  

Sproles acknowledged that a faster timeline for awarding grants would have been appreciated. In the end, she said she’s glad to see the money on its way to communities in need.

“It’s hard to be negative about it,” Sproles said. “There’s still a need. That need has not gone anywhere.” 

Editor’s note: This article was updated Thursday, August 18, 2022 to correct a description of Rep. Kim Abbott’s legislative role. She does not sit on the ARPA Health Advisory Commission.

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Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.