Child Care Challenges
News, Spring 2017
Resources, Information and Support Ease the Struggles
BY KARA SCHWEISS
Whether it’s because a new baby is born, the family moves, a parent takes on a new job or enters an educational program—or simply because a family wants to make a change to current arrangements—finding quality child care can be an arduous process with a host of factors to contemplate, from location and transportation to curriculum and caregiver training.
And, of course, there’s cost to consider. A recent Gallup report, “Women in America: Work and Life Well-Lived” showed that more than one-fourth of women not working and with children at home said the cost of child care is “too high,” and cited that as a reason they were not in the workforce. According to a 2012 study by the nonprofit Child Care Aware of America, Nebraska’s average rates for full-time care were actually fairly low compared to other states: around $8,000 per year on average for an infant, $6,500 for a preschooler and $4,400 for a school-age child. However, five years later, and considering that the state averages included rural communities, most Omaha families are paying far more than that study reflects. An informal survey of current published rates suggested that average full-time tuition is really more in the neighborhood of $250-plus per week for infants, $225 to $250 for toddlers and around $150 to $200 for school-age children.
“Child care can be as expensive as sending your child to a university,” says Tracy Gordon, co-executive director of the Nebraska Association For The Education Of Young Children (Nebraska AEYC). “Some families just can’t justify the cost.”
Lauri Cimino, director of Step Up to Quality, Nebraska’s quality rating and improvement system for child care, agrees. “We know that most families, even with one child, pay more for their child care than their rent or possibly their mortgage,” she says.
The business of taking care of children is inherently expensive, especially in the city, Cimino explains. “So what folks don’t necessarily understand is there are high costs associated with operating a child care business. High quality is expensive. And that being said, most of our child care professionals are drastically underpaid for the important work that they do.”
When the cost of child care is close to or even overtakes what employment can generate, families may be eligible for income-sensitive resources such as the state’s Child Care Subsidy Program, according to Leah Bucco-White, a public information officer with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
“There is a lot of good information and resources for parents on the DHHS website. Child care subsidy information is available,” she says. “Our child care licensing team is also a great resource. We encourage people to contact us with questions/concerns at 800-600-1289 or email DHHS.ChildcareLicensing@nebraska.gov.”
Cimino said that financially challenged families may be eligible for pre-kindergarten programs through their local public school system, although availability is limited. “We do know that across the state—and Omaha is the same—there are not enough (openings) to meet the demand.
Head Start may be an option for some families. The Federal program promotes school readiness for children from birth to age 5 for low-income families and also emphasizes building relationships to support Families with children who are not developing typically or have been diagnosed with a health condition that will affect their development are eligible for special education services even in infancy or early childhood. Local coordinators can advise on services available, which may include child care resources and support. The initial point of access is the Nebraska Early Development Network online at edn.ne.gov or locally at 402-471-2447.
Regardless of their family’s circumstances, all children deserve quality child care, Gordon says. And it may take some research, but that kind of care is available throughout Omaha. “I believe that there can be and is quality (child care) all across the city,” she says.
Parents can find a roster of licensed child care providers in Nebraska on the DHHS site and also view information on disciplinary actions issued against providers. “The role of the DHHS Child Care Licensing is to ensure that programs and staff are providing care to the children they serve in a safe and supportive environment,” Bucco-White says.
It’s hard for some families to look beyond cost and location, but they need to consider that quality child care has long-reaching effects, Cimino says.
“We do know that children who receive high-quality early care and education are more likely to have higher reading and math skills, graduate from high school and have a job and earn a better living,” she says. “Not only is it the best thing and right thing to do for our children, but it’s the best thing and the right thing to do for our communities and our state. And everyone owns a piece of that responsibility.”
Step Up to Quality is not only a resource for families with children seeking child care services, its very mission is to improve child care and early childhood education providers, which benefits the providers—most of them participating voluntarily—too.
“Step Up to Quality is here as a result of LB507, which passed in the Unicameral in 2013 with an implementation date for a quality rating and improvement system in Nebraska beginning July 1, 2014,” she says. “Currently we have about 370 programs that have started their journey with Step Up to Quality. Some of the great benefits are that we’re able to offer coaching and professional development, there are some financial incentives and lots of resources available to programs at no cost to them.”
The program’s website at education.ne.gov/StepUptoQuality currently offers resources for both providers and families—from center assessment checklists to curriculum guides—and it soon will be publishing detailed data on enrolled child-care providers.
“The ratings will go public in July of this year, that’s by statute, so that will be another tool or avenue for parents to be able to learn more information and make some good decisions about where they want their children to get their early care and education.”
The very act of a child care provider participating in Step Up to Quality is a positive indicator for parents, Cimino adds, because it demonstrates striving for improvement. More than 135 of the approximately 900 licensed providers in Douglas and Sarpy County have already enrolled.
“They’re making a statement,” she says, adding that as awareness about the program increases, more parents will expect child-care providers to participate, which should increase enrollment.
“High-quality programs engage in what we call continuous self-assessment; they’re always looking for ways to improve upon what they do,” Gordon says. “The high-quality programs are also going to be research-based using best practices, which relies on input from a host of national experts who weigh in.”
Gordon’s organization, Nebraska AEYC, is a professional membership organization known as the foremost professional association for the early childhood field. NAEYC accreditation is the gold standard for early childhood programs across the country.
“If it’s a family child-care home setting, if it’s a child-care center, if it’s one of our state-funded pre-kindergarten programs, I think wherever children are they should be in a quality setting,” Gordon says. “As the state affiliate for the national AEYC, we have a wide variety of projects and services we offer to the general early childhood community. Our focus primarily is on three different areas: education, advocacy and leadership. Nebraska AEYC has identified 10 overarching standards, and within the standards there are over 400 criteria that help programs really dig deep and engage in good self-assessment to ensure that they are truly providing high quality.”
With a mission to promote high-quality early learning for all young children, the organization provides ample information and resources available to anyone through its website, familiesnaeyc.org. Accreditation, by contrast, is not available to everyone. It’s a voluntary process, but standards are stringent.
“In Omaha there are only 21 AEYC-accredited programs,” Gordon says, adding that families can be confident of the exceptional quality of accredited facilities, staff, leadership and programs—but that doesn’t necessarily mean other providers across the city are substandard.
“There are quality programs who have not chosen to go through the accreditation process,” she says. “Or not yet.”
Fortunately, online resources for parents facing decisions about child care are abundant and easy to access. Parents assessing a child care program can easily guide themselves through a list of quality indicators, such as small group sizes and staff-to-children ratios, visibly positive interactions between caregivers and children, educated teachers with an understanding of developmentally appropriate practices, good sanitation procedures and numerous other tangible signs. “Parents need a starting place and questions to ask,” Cimino says.
“Choosing child care is one of the most important decisions parents can make. We encourage parents to start looking for child care early; to do their homework; look things up online; get recommendations from family, friends and coworkers; and to make an unannounced visit to a child care they’re considering and stay to observe,” Bucco-White says. “Child care is truly a partnership between parents and the provider.” W