Jonathon Ambarian

HELENA (KPAX) — The cost of childcare has been a major concern for many Montana families. On Thursday, advocates gathered in Helena to celebrate a new state law that seeks to provide additional support for families who need help with those costs.

House Bill 648, sponsored by Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman, makes several key changes to the Best Beginnings scholarship program, which covers some of the costs of childcare for lower-income Montanans. Legislative Democrats held a news conference at the State Capitol to mark the law coming into effect on Saturday, July 1.

While the program has been existence for years, supporters say the changes will make a big difference for the families using it.

“It feels like a foundation that we can really move from,” said Buckley.

Families participating in Best Beginnings have to make a copayment based on their income levels. Rep. SJ Howell, D-Missoula, said federal assistance during the COVID pandemic helped keep those copays lower, but that funding expired at the end of last year.

“We saw families and providers facing some really, truly untenable choices – choices about whether or not they could stay in the workforce, choices about whether or not they could stay in their communities,” Howell said.

One of those families was Valerie Knowlton’s. They joined Best Beginnings in 2021 when she and her husband were both working full-time and needed child care assistance, but withdrew this year after their copays grew to more than they could handle.

“Our copayment went up to about as much as our rent payment, and we just couldn't do it,” she said.

Since then, Knowlton says she’s been trying to cover child care needs with help from family members.

HB 648 would put copays on a new sliding scale, capped at 9% of a family’s monthly income. It also expands the maximum income level for eligibility from 150% of the federal poverty level – $45,000 for a family of four – to 185% – around $55,000 for the same family.

The bill also makes payments to childcare providers more stable by basing them on the months a child is enrolled, instead of the days they’re in attendance. That’s in line with the way parents who don’t receive state assistance pay for their care.

Jen Gursky is executive director of YWCA Helena, which opened Caterpillars’ Clubhouse, a childcare center for children who’ve experienced trauma, last year. She says the change in the reimbursement structure means providers won’t lose out on funding if kids are out with extended illnesses.

“I don’t get to lay off staff – my budget does not decrease because kiddos don’t come to childcare,” she said.

Gursky said they’ve seen clients have to cut back their hours at work because of the high costs of their copays.

“I know that we can do better, and this bill does better for the folks in our communities,” she said. “It does better for the folks that are struggling with challenges that some of us will never know, but it also does better for the folks – just exactly as the representative said – wanting to be in the workforce.”

HB 648 had a long path to becoming law. It passed several committees and won preliminary approval in the House by just one vote each. On final passage, it cleared the House and Senate with support from Democrats and just under half of Republicans. Gov. Greg Gianforte signed it into law on June 14.

Buckley said it was important to come together and celebrate HB 648.

“It makes me think about how symbolic it is to be in community around this, because nothing about this bill happened in a silo, nothing about this bill was an individual effort,” she said.

Knowlton said she’s excited about the changes the bill will make.

“It's amazing,” she said. “I'm going to be able to reapply for the program and hopefully find adequate care for my kiddos – especially during the summer.”

She said it’s a great feeling to have leaders take action to help families like hers.

“I feel like we're being seen,” she said. “It's a crisis that's been happening. It's an ongoing problem that this will definitely help.”