Child care faces 'trilemma'

Parents looking for affordable, accessible and quality care

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Tami Havener's office phone started ringing early Tuesday morning.

The questions from the other end of the line were all the same, as was Havener's response.

No, she told parents, Discovery Learning Center doesn't have any openings for their children. A spot at the end of Discovery's four-page waiting list was all she could offer.

If finding availability in early childhood education programs in Routt County was difficult a week ago, it's near impossible now that Holy Name Preschool is scheduled to close after 25 years.

Routt County is home to an estimated 1,000 children age 5 and younger, 700 of whom are enrolled in some form of child-care program, said Renee Donahue, early childhood manager for First Impressions of Routt County.

Until Holy Name Preschool's closure was announced last week, finding openings for preschool-aged children in licensed Routt County homes or centers wasn't a significant problem. That's no longer the case, Donahue said.

"The closing of Holy Name pushes it to a critical stage," Donahue said. "There are not enough slots for the kids being displaced."

The parents of the roughly 40 children who attend Holy Name Preschool can't find spots for their children in other homes, parent Jody Kline said.

"All the parents are in a panic," Kline said. "There's been so many tears shed over this."

While they historically provide adequate space for Routt County preschoolers, early childhood programs that provide services to infants and toddlers are rare in the area. In fact, only two centers -- GrandKids Child Care Center and Young Tracks Preschool and Child Care -- are licensed to care for infants and toddlers.

"People put their names on the waiting list before they even get pregnant," Donahue said.

But availability isn't the only issue affecting early childhood education programs.

Affordability and quality also are important for families and the programs that serve them, Havener said.

She calls the challenge of providing affordable, accessible and quality programs to families the "trilemma" facing early-childhood education across the country. A program that is affordable and accessible often lacks quality. A quality program that's accessible often isn't affordable.

"Without outside funding, it's really difficult to have all three of those things," said Havener, who heads the Family Development Center, which oversees the Newborn Network and the Child Care Network as well as Discovery Learning Center.

The daily per-child cost for child care in the county ranges from $35 to $48, Donahue said. Home providers tend to have slightly less-expensive rates.

And while many families, especially single-parent households, already struggle with those rates, the rates don't even cover the expenses of a child-care program, she said.

In fact, most Routt County child-care centers operate at a loss and require subsidies to stay in operation, Donahue said.

Discovery Learning Center relies on between $70,000 and $100,000 in donations and grants each year to meet its expenses.

"We do break even but only because we're able to raise that money," Havener said. "I spend a significant amount of my time chasing dollars."

GrandKids is subsidized in the amount of $100,000 a year by Yampa Valley Medical Center, Donahue said. Holy Name Preschool, which identified financial constraints as its reason for closing, is subsidized in the amount of $40,000 to $60,000 a year, she said.

All but two area child-care centers are not-for-profit, which is increasingly necessary to acquire grants and federal assistance.

But those grants still aren't enough, Donahue said.

Programs often are not affordable for families as it is, and centers aren't able to rely on tuition to cover expenses such as rent or mortgage payments, salaries and benefits.

Rising health insurance costs forced Discovery Learning Center to raise its daily per-child rate by $13 over the past four years. Havener said providing employee benefits is necessary to recruit and retain the quality staff necessary for a strong program. Even with benefits, the 12 staff members at Discovery earn an average wage of only $10 an hour.

Public schools receive substantial public funding, but early childhood education programs don't, even while research continues to demonstrate the importance of a quality education program from infancy to kindergarten age.

What federal dollars do come into the county are reserved for the poorest of area families, and those funds have been cut in recent years.

"There needs to be more government help," Havener said.

Routt County and the city of Steamboat Springs approved ballot issues for the November 2001 election that would combine to raise nearly $2 million a year for early childhood education programs. Both taxes easily were defeated by voters.

"The public wasn't ready to embrace it," Donahue said. "We still feel there's a lot of public education that needs to be done on the issue."

It may take a crisis before there's the momentum to reform the nation's struggling early childhood education and child-care system, Havener said.

Some think the magnitude of the problem hasn't been realized, and until it is, families and child-care programs will continue to struggle.

Closures, such as the one affecting the three dozen or more families who have relied on Holy Name Preschool's service this year, may help focus the spotlight on the problem of providing affordable, accessible and quality early childhood education, Donahue said.

"It definitely will bring it into light," she said.


-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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