Families of every income level in Charlottesville and across the country are struggling to find quality childcare, and studies show that costs are still rising as gaps in licensing and training requirements persist. Nonprofits and government agencies have been examining the issue for years, and experts say they’ve always known how the numbers add up: Quality childcare is expensive, and you get what you pay for.
In August 2012, Child Care Aware (CCA), a national advocacy organization, released a report examining financing challenges in every state. The annual cost of infant care ranges from $4,600 in Mississippi to $15,000 in Massachusetts, with Virginia in the middle at $10,670. The pricier options are upwards of $14,000 in Charlottesville, where the median family income is $42,240. According to CCA’s report, about 1.7 million children receive federal assistance for care— roughly one out of every six eligible children.
Cost isn’t the only problem. CCA has also examined childcare licensing requirements, which vary from state to state, and found major discrepancies. Parents are likely to expect that people who care for the children have a certain amount of training, CPR certification, and background checks, said Child Care Aware Chief of Policy and Evaluation Grace Reef. But that’s not always the case.
“It’s important to do these evaluations to show whether or not state policies are protecting children,” said Reef.
And in some localities, the scrutiny seems to be paying off. When the 2010 report Leaving Children to Chance—a ranking of state standards and oversight for small home-based childcare centers—was released, Kansas was at the bottom of the list with zero points. Two years later, after enacting Lexie’s Law, which enforced licensing requirements, the state scored 111 of 150 points and is ranked third overall.
Experts say kids are an indicator of a community’s health, and Virginia has some catching up to do. Kansas may have improved its in-home care licensing requirements, but the same 2012 report that saw it rebound saw the Commonwealth tied with seven other states for last place, with a score of zero.
Even states with higher scores have room for improvement. Basic CPR certification, for example, is not a licensing requirement in many states. According to Harris, a 19-month-old girl got her head stuck in some playground equipment at a licensed daycare center in Alaska last September and strangled to death. The staff frantically searched for someone who knew CPR, but were too late. An investigation is ongoing, and parents want to know why their children’s caregivers are not certified.
Health and safety should come first, Reef said, and CCA is pushing for federal and state required CPR training for every childcare provider.
“There’s a gap between logical assumptions parents make and what providers are doing,” she said.
Reef wholeheartedly believes that both parents and providers want the best for children. But state childcare licensing isn’t always very transparent, she said, and often both policymakers and providers are unaware of expectations and requirements. And that’s where the cost problem comes back in. Training and certifications are expensive, so if a center is already hurting for money, it’s tempting to accept the bare minimum.
Not all centers require a college degree in a child-related field—they can pay their employees less and therefore charge families less. Reef said this is fine, but hiring someone with only a high school diploma or GED makes extensive training all the more important.
“How do you take some of these bigger issues on when you know parents are already tapped out?” Reef said. “We’ve got to find a way to underwrite training costs and make it affordable for everybody.”
Congress and other policymakers have the authority to make changes, and Reef said families and communities have to tag team it to make it happen. The organization’s studies call on the government to do more, and in Virginia, the Department of Social Services is stepping up.
The Virginia DSS is taking a hard look at the issue of finding affordable quality care, and is conducting an extensive study on supply, demand, and cost. James Madison University Professor Teresa Harris is project director of the Virginia Early Childhood Needs Assessment and Fiscal Mapping Project, and is currently collecting data on family demographics, availability in each locality, and statewide money flow. Harris said the final step after analyzing the information is to give recommendations on how to make the system more effective and cost efficient.
She expects to finish analyzing the data by July 2013, and she hopes the results will help address the financial crisis surrounding childcare in Virginia.
But experts already know the answer to the question of how to improve quality and access to childcare. It’s money.
“If you want high quality you’ve got to have a way to pay for it,” Harris said. “Then the question becomes who is going to pay for that?”
Harris and other experts agree that the accessibility and affordability crunch stems from women entering the workforce, which began during World War II. When women were forced to get jobs while their husbands were overseas, the government granted $52 million—about $700 million in 2012 dollars—to fund childcare under the Lanham Act. The funding lasted until 1946, and women were expected to return home. But more and more mothers went back into the workforce, Harris said, so nonprofits and government agencies began examining the high cost and questionable quality of childcare and early education.
It’s still early in the study, and Harris said she’s not sure how the state will be able to reallocate resources. But she’s encouraged by the number of people who seem to be committed to examining the problem and coming up with solutions. Several states have conducted similar studies, and found that communication among stakeholders was essential.
“The bottom line is getting people to talk to people,” she said.
Harris said nearly all families struggle to afford care. It’s not just a low-income issue, and not everybody has access to the same resources.
“We’ve always known the importance of early childhood education,” said Gail Esterman, who oversees childcare at Charlottesville’s office of Children, Youth & Family Services. “But now expectations are much higher.”
Esterman agrees that training is the key to higher standards. CYFS hosts free seminars and training sessions for local childcare providers, but a nonprofit can only do so much. She said if the government doesn’t spend the money on early childhood care and education, it will have to spend it on other social services as the kids get older. Families will continue to struggle, and new generations will face the same problems.
“It’s a cycle,” Esterman said. “The cycle can be broken with more access to quality care early on.”