Andy and Brianne Anderson pay $140 a week so their daughter, Brooklyn, can go to an in-home day care in Bloomington while they work full-time.
That’s $560 a month. About $7,000 a year.
“We’re a middle-class family. We pretty much live paycheck to paycheck,” Brianne said during a GLT interview at their kitchen table in Atlanta, Ill. “So the cheaper you can get it, the better it is. But you also want the quality as well.”
Andy, a plumber, and Brianne, an administrator at a nonprofit, don’t get any help to pay for child care. Like many middle-income families, their household income is above the eligibility limit for the state’s Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP).
“We’re just doing it on our own,” Brianne said. “A lot of people can identify with that. When it’s more of a need than a want, it gets priority (in the family budget).”
High cost and low level of government assistance are among many gaps in the central Illinois child care marketplace. These gaps may not always financially ruin families, but they make everyday life a challenge, according to more than a dozen GLT interviews with parents, day care providers, and child care experts.
Public K-12 education is financed almost entirely by the public sector—through taxes—and available to all children. Yet early childhood education involves substantial family payments.
Many see room for improvement in CCAP. To be eligible for partially subsidized child care in Illinois, a family of four would have to make less than $46,000 a year. And even then, they’d be responsible for an income-based co-pay as high as $393 a month. (Most pay between $100 and $200, according to state data from 2017.)
As of November 2018, there were 671 families in McLean County that participated in CCAP, averaging $658 per month per family, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services. But that’s often less than the full cost of care. It would cost Illinois parents who put a 4-year-old and an infant in child care $1,353 per month (in-home day care) and $1,966 per month (full child care center), according to an estimate from Child Care Aware of America’s 2018 study.
“The state subsidy amounts—what the state pays a provider—is below the market average for the majority of care provided throughout the state,” said Dan Harris, executive director of Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (INCCRRA), which includes 16 local CCRRN agencies around the state.
“That makes it difficult for parents,” he said.
Only around 15 or 20 of the 300 families at Little Jewels Learning Centers in Bloomington-Normal are receiving CCAP subsidies, said Mary Beth Lowery, director of operations at Little Jewels.
“It’s hard for families to get that state assistance,” she said. “They might make ‘too much’ for the state, but they’re barely making ends meet. They’re working a part-time job, and they’re in school, and they just need that extra help.”
So how much would it cost to properly fund a new child care model in the U.S.? It would require about $48 billion in new public-sector funding annually, according to a 2018 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
“The current lack of harmonization among (current) financing mechanisms leads to gaps in early childhood education (ECE) affordability for some low-income families, economic segregation within ECE settings and classrooms, and underutilization of ECE services by middle-income families,” the National Academies report found.
Their overhaul would make it so families paid either no fee or an amount they can reasonably afford, based on established income criteria, and pay ECE workers more.
Before- and After-School Programs
For Bloomington-Normal parents who work full-time, there’s another gap that needs to be filled every day: before and after-school care.
Locally, YWCA McLean County and Normal Parks and Recreation tag-team the need and offer low-cost before and after-school care at several sites around the community. The YWCA cares for 350 children, providing a curriculum, mentorship, and homework help, said Melissa Breeden, senior director for its Young Wonders program.
“It ties directly into our mission, because we help to empower moms and dads to continue to work. We want to make sure the children stay safe and that they’re getting the best experience possible both before and after school,” she said.
With over 600 kids and 80 staff, Normal’s before and after-school programs are a bargain. After-school care is currently just $21 a week per kid. Even with a coming increase in fees, they’re still “60 percent lower than the next lowest comparable program that we identified,” said Normal Parks and Rec Director Doug Damery. Normal also offers scholarships for low-income families to cut the fees in half.
But there are capacity issues. Marjaneh Ghasemi of Normal said she’s tried repeatedly to get her two older kids into the after-school program at Grove Elementary. But she said she’s failed repeatedly to win the lottery that determines who gets the 100 spots at Grove. Instead, Ghasemi pays a college student $150 per week to watch her older kids after school.
“I don’t understand why there’s a number limit,” she said.
It’s a facility issue, Damery said. Normal’s before and after-school programs are hosted at eight Unit 5 schools, and they don’t have any more physical space to expand, Damery said. Six of the eight sites are at capacity, he said. At Grove, where Ghasemi’s kids would go, there were 30 families on the wait list as school began last fall, said Normal Recreation Supervisor Kristal Tetter, who oversees the programs.
“It’s not so much a budget problem as it is a facilities problem,” Damery said. “The size of the school and the rooms we have access to dictate how many kids we put there.”
Breeden said the YWCA’s programs, with mostly District 87 sites, generally don’t have capacity issues, with one exception: infants.
Those on the front lines of Bloomington-Normal child care agree that infant care is a growing need.
“We have one infant room, so that can be challenging, filling that up. Once it’s filled, it’s filled,” said Breeden.
At Katie’s Kids Learning Centers, owner Katie Stelle-Mardis said she recently added an infant room to meet growing demand. She cut one of her preschool rooms, as there are more and more preschools, especially faith-based ones, popping up.
Infant care is among the most expensive for parents. In Illinois, it costs $13,474 to place an infant in a child care center on average, according to the Child Care Aware 2018 study. That’s the same amount as tuition and fees at a state university.
“If you’re looking for infant care, and to find a high-quality provider that meets higher standards of care, or even just any provider that will care for your infant, there’s a waiting list at most places. It’s a challenge for most parents to find a spot—at any price,” said Harris, who works with child care referral agencies around the state.
Filling The Gaps
Fixing child care is a monumental task. But it's been done before, in bits and pieces. The Normal Parks and Rec and YWCA after-school programs are prime examples.
New solutions are emerging locally. After seeing a need for after-school programs for kids with special needs, YWCA and Unit 5 recently teamed up for a new after-school program at Colene Hoose Elementary, a special needs hub for the district.
“One thing about this community is it’s saturated with child care programs. But there are so many different options, that I think when you’re a parent that has a child with special needs, it’s easier for you to bounce from one to another, instead of getting to the root of what the issue is and how to help that child,” said the YWCA’s Breeden.
Heartland Community College is attacking another unmet need: evening care.
Last month Heartland launched a new evening care program for students with school-age children. For $30 a week, Heartland students taking evening classes can drop off their kids between 5-9:30 p.m. They do their homework and other activities.
Director of Continuing Education Angie Coughlin recalled a prospective student who was considering enrolling in Heartland’s dental assistant program a few years ago.
“But child care was the barrier for her. She had a 6-year-old she couldn’t leave in the evening. She didn’t have a place to take her. She ended up not enrolling in the program, which was unfortunate,” Coughlin said. “And there are many other stories like that. So we’re hoping with this program we can eliminate some of those barriers and provide necessary supports for other students.”
Coming Friday: What are the best big ideas to fix the broken child care system, and how might they play out in central Illinois?
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