Start Early. Start well.

October 09, 2020

Nebraska's Child Care Problems Hurt Businesses and State's Bottom Line, Lawmakers Learn at Hearing

Mariah Stowe testifying on LR 390Mariah Stowe, owner of Splash of Color Child Care in Lincoln, told senators that the decision to remain open was difficult. "It finally came down to the fact that we couldn't afford to close," she said. State officials say that in the past six months, 63 licensed child cares have closed permanently, and another 224 are still closed temporarily.

 

By Matthew Hansen, Managing Editor

A Lincoln child care provider whose business teeters on the brink of closing showed up at the Nebraska State Capitol recently. So did University of Nebraska President Ted Carter, to tell state lawmakers that a college student’s future success is tethered to early childhood education.

A business leader showed up, because she knows her employees quit when their paychecks don’t meet the cost and stress of finding child care. A bevy of experts did, too, to deliver state senators economic research showing that Nebraska is losing hundreds of millions each year because of inadequate child care—and will lose far more if child care providers continue to disappear during the COVID-19 pandemic. And Sen. John Stinner, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, showed up as well. He called the hearing and argued that there’s a pragmatic business case to better fund child care.

On a recent sunny morning, a patchwork quilt of Nebraskans arrived at the Capitol to deliver and detail the following messages to the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee:

Nebraska’s child care system is struggling. It is struggling even more this year. Together, and only together, Nebraskans can rebuild it better.

“We are unified in our desire to have high-quality, well-funded early childhood programs in the state of Nebraska,” said Marjorie Kostelnik, former dean of UNL’s College of Education and Human Sciences and the co-chair of the Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission, which earlier this year released a path forward for improving Nebraska child care.

Nebraska State Sens. Tony Vargas and Anna WishartSens. Tony Vargas and Anna Wishart

Nebraskans who testified in front of the Appropriations Committee Sept. 29 told lawmakers that the state and state government need to address serious short- and long-term problems.

This fall, the pandemic is threatening the very existence of many Nebraska child care centers and in-home providers.

In the past six months, 63 licensed child cares have closed permanently, according to state officials. Another 224 are still closed temporarily, and it’s unclear how many of those will actually reopen.

This means that nearly 10 percent of the state’s licensed child care centers and in-home providers aren’t currently caring for children, alarming since Nebraska families already faced a serious child care shortage before 2020.

Currently open child care providers are also struggling. Kathleen Gallagher, director of research and evaluation at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, told senators that a recent statewide survey showed that one out of every four providers has lost at least half their revenue this year. More than half surveyed said that, without financial assistance, they will probably or definitely close their doors if the pandemic continues or worsens.

Mariah Stowe, owner of Splash of Color Child Care in Lincoln, walked state senators through the wrenching decision-making process to stay open this spring. On the one hand, it felt dangerous to remain open for her, her employees, and the children in her care. There’s no one to socially distance toddlers, she said. On the other hand: She has bills to pay. “It finally came down to the fact that we couldn’t afford to close,” Stowe told the Appropriations Committee.

Stowe continued operating but lost half of her 12 children, whose parents had decided to keep them home. She lost revenue. She is proudly continuing to care for the kids of parents who work at three different Lincoln hospitals—essential workers who need essential child care to do their jobs.

But that pride is not profit.

Stowe told lawmakers that her husband’s steady income is the main reason Splash of Color stayed open.

“Without that, we likely would have made another choice,” she said.

Making it past the pandemic will not cure what ails Nebraska’s child care system, experts told state lawmakers.

Because of a lack of funding in the system, early childhood teachers are poorly paid and child care owners often struggle. Even when middle-class parents can find child care—no easy feat since there’s a shortage of child care in almost every Nebraska county—they often can’t afford to pay for it at prices that sometimes zoom past the cost of college tuition.

This lack of funding and rampant shortages hurt Nebraska parents, employers, communities, and the state itself, a recent report from UNL economists and First Five Nebraska showed.

The state loses $745 million annually because parents drop out of the workforce, miss work, turn down a promotion, or simply move because of a lack of child care.

We can’t expect Nebraska’s child care system to properly function at current funding levels, said Cathey Huddleston-Casas, the Buffett Institute’s associate director of workforce development.

“We must shift to a model where the funding reflects the size of economy the system is designed to serve,” Huddleston-Casas said. “If we aspire to a larger, more robust economy in Nebraska, then we aspire to a robust early care and education system as well.”

Many testifiers and the chairman of the Appropriations Committee himself say that Nebraskans are already working toward solutions.

The Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission, a diverse group of 40 Nebraskans including Stinner, released a report earlier this year that included the first-ever analysis of how much money is spent on early childhood in Nebraska—and how much we must spend to fully fund the system and ensure that every young child gets the chance for quality care and education.

(Read the report here)

The goal: Close the gap by 2030, using money from the federal government, state government, philanthropists, and private sources like businesses and families.

Nebraska State Sen. John StinnerSen. John Stinner

Stinner and the Nebraska Legislature have kicked off a legislative study, with a report due in December, to examine these issues and the economic impact of COVID on the early childhood workforce.

During and after the hearing, the Republican state senator from Scotts Bluff County expressed support for doing more to close that funding gap.

He pointed out that the State of Nebraska just passed a $125 million property tax relief bill, and compared that to a situation where the state would need to come up with $110 million for early childhood education in the next decade.

“Is this something, priority-wise, that resonates with people across this state? Is this something we need to get done?” he asked.

And Stinner kept returning to the massive amounts of money Nebraska loses every year, as well as what we will lose in the future if the state’s youngest residents don’t get quality early childhood education and thus aren’t ready for Kindergarten, high school, college, or the workforce.

“That’s part of the business argument” for improved early childhood care and education, he said. “If we don’t do anything, this is going to be a lingering cost and quite possibly a growing cost.”

Inside a blank-walled hearing room at the State Capitol, that sentiment is what united the University of Nebraska president, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, early childhood experts, corporate leaders, and the owner of a small business currently caring for children whose parents work at Lincoln hospitals.

We have to do something about Nebraska child care, they all think. We have to act, and soon.

 

Matthew Hansen, the managing editor of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, is an award-winning journalist tasked with telling the stories of the Institute's work and early childhood care and education in Nebraska and beyond.

His columns can be read at https://buffettinstitute.nebraska.edu/news-and-events/early-years-matter. Have a comment, a question, or a story idea? Reach Matthew at matthewhansen@nebraska.edu.

 

 

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