As I walked closer to the door of the childcare facility on campus, my two-year-old daughter’s arms tightened around my neck. As a single mom attending the University of Montana, I had to take my toddler to daycare daily in order to attend class. Every day she screamed in protest when the staff pried her out of my arms, and I would walk away with tears in my eyes. Daycare was a costly necessity, and the choices overwhelming, but nothing ever felt quite right.
Fast forward to Seattle two years later: my daughter is four. I dropped her off at 7am in order to make it to work by 8 am. I left work at 5pm, made my way through traffic to pick her up by 6pm. My young daughter spent 11 hours in daycare. Home by 6:20pm, I threw dinner on, fed and bathed her, and tucked her in. I had only 90 minutes on work days with my child. The rest of the time she was being raised by random staff members at a huge daycare center.
One day I had an epiphany. I could make money and have her with me at the same time if I opened my own school. I could offer a level of care that would reassure parents that their child was more than just safe and content. I could create a program that fulfilled children’s basic needs but also nurtured them in a way that was as close to parental love as possible. I could fill their little tummies with nutritious organic food, and provide a curriculum that would provide a true advantage as they entered grade school. I could provide a family away from home, using an eco-conscious curriculum that incorporated principles of sustainability and ecology.
And I did it. I returned home to St. Ignatius, located on the Flathead Reservation in Montana, and opened Advantage Academic Academy. I developed the curriculum by interviewing kindergarten and first grade teachers from several school districts to find out what they felt the main gaps were and the most important learning skills. I also researched dropout rates and statistics to learn the most common factors contributing to academic failure.
I cared for well over 100 children over the next eight years, graduating more than sixty into kindergarten. I then opened two more centers in the nearby city of Missoula, an Infant and Toddler Center and a Preschool Center. I’ve been running my own programs for over twelve years.
It’s been satisfying and challenging, expensive and rewarding. Recently I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend, however. There are conversations making the rounds on social media about how daycare/preschool is almost, as or even more expensive, than in-state college tuition. These posts are followed by many comments from people who agree. They talk about how “insanely” expensive it is; how its “ridiculous” and “something needs to be done”; how hard-working families are getting ripped off; how it’s an epidemic that needs to be addressed.
Here is my response:
First of all, very few people are getting wealthy running daycare centers or preschools. Maybe some CEO’s of huge chain centers with multiple locations, but certainly not many independent owners like myself.
And yes, it IS a significant expense for parents. Multiply the tuition for a year by the number of kids being cared for and you see something well into the six figures. Seems like we’re making out fine, right?
Well, let’s remember a few things:
Most college professors teach classes with anywhere from 50-100 students. One teacher, with possibly a TA, teaching all those students. I, however, have to have a staff member on the floor at all times for every four children in my infant center and one staff member at all times for every six children in my preschool.
In other words, every day, between my two centers I have to have five or six staff on the floor at all times, 50 hours a week. It takes all income from two children to pay the salary of one staff member, so 10-12 children’s tuitions go directly into teacher salaries.
That doesn’t cover any of other many expenses. Colleges don’t need to pay the huge liability insurance fees required by caretakers of small children, for example. In addition, I serve all-organic food to my precious people four times a day. For 25 munchkins, that’s 100 organic meals every day, and 2000 organic meals a month. If you know what even small bag of organic groceries costs, do THAT math!
College students are adults who can take care of themselves. They don’t have university staff wiping their poopy butts and runny noses; putting them to bed, getting them up and cleaning up after them all day; making sure they are happy, healthy, and safe; AND teaching them colors, numbers, letters, and phonics; teaching them to read; and instilling in them awesome social skills: how to share, be polite, use their big child voices instead of whining; how to cough in a way that keeps toys and playmates unsprayed. It’s a significant expense, but shouldn’t it be? The care & education of what means most to you in LIFE?
My staff and I do one of the hardest and most important jobs on the planet. We’re lucky when we get to work with parents who appreciate that and understand what a HUGE undertaking it is. The liability of taking care of people’s precious children and their INFANTS–often keeps me up at night. Ten employees and over thirty families rely on me every day for their lives to run smoothly. If my doors aren’t open, none of them can go to work.
In spite of all the money involved in running these programs, I never made enough to afford my own heath insurance until recently, thanks to the Affordable Health Care Act.
One of the grand ironies is that thanks to what I do, a lot more children will MAKE it to college. Look at the stats about how important early childhood education is to children’s academic futures!
I want people to consider these details before concluding that childcare providers are somehow making more money than university professors. Wouldn’t that be great!? The cost of childcare and education should be right up there with rent/mortgage, transportation and food as a priority. And which of those categories means the most to you and for which is the most at stake?
Overall this trend of comparing daycare and college tuition costs is ridiculous because the only thing they have in common is the fact that education/learning is happening in both places. The care of young children is a completely separate service to educating, and early childhood professionals do both. So you are actually getting twice the service for your money as opposed to when you send your young adult children to college.
As I reflect on this, I see that it’s not just about early childhood education. It’s about the skyrocketing costs of running any small business. Raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, as Seattle has just done, would put me out of business, unless I were to raise my rates again significantly. If I pay teenage aides and PT entry-level employees $15, what do I pay my more qualified FT employees? $18? $20? Keep in mind whatever base rate I pay an employee I have to add roughly another $3+ dollars an hour to pay on every employee’s taxes (FICA, unemployment, workers compensation, Social Security etc.,) which means that each individual staff member would absorb the tuition of 4 children. I would have to close the infant center, which has a 1:4 teacher/student ratio, or start charging $10 per hour for tuition. That would make full-time tuition almost $2000 per month!
But people are already up in arms about paying $6 per hour. Maybe this conversation really needs to be about tax breaks for small businesses. That, and more subsidies for not just low-income, but middle income families, like myself, who are always the ones who slip through the cracks.
It’s time we take child care seriously, and treat child care providers with the respect—and salary—we deserve.