Start Early. Start well.

November 19, 2023

We Must Do More to Stabilize Future of Early Childhood Education in Nebraska

By Sarah Ann Kotchian 

Over the last 44 years, hundreds of children have learned and grown inside Nared's Peewee Palace INC. 

Former students bring their children and grandchildren back to be cared for at Deb Nared’s family-run child care center in north Omaha. They tend to remember two things: being read to, and the famous “skillet toast” her mother, a retired Omaha Public Schools educator, cooked for them in a hot pan. 

“Really, we love children,” Nared said. “This is the honest-to-God truth. My whole entire family has had a stake in this.”

Early childhood programs like Nared’s are fixtures in their community, places where generations of children and families return. Now it’s our turn to reciprocate that same support and care for early educators facing exceptional challenges. 

Sarah Ann KotchianSarah Ann Kotchian

On Sept. 30, the majority of federal aid funding intended to keep child care programs afloat during the pandemic expired. To be sure, this influx of funding was a meaningful infusion in the midst of a crisis. But the funding crisis in the child care industry is nothing new and will continue until more of us collectively come around the table to address long-standing systemic infrastructure issues to prioritize long-term investment in early care and education. 

The child care industry in Nebraska is woefully underfunded, as detailed in a recent research brief from the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska. Compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic, Nebraska had already experienced a net loss of nearly 10% of its child care programs.

Federal pandemic aid threw a lifeline to struggling providers and Nebraska received an estimated $312 million to prop up its child care system. Child care providers spent these dollars on necessities: rent or mortgage payments, cleaning supplies, payroll, the electric bill.  

Nared gave her handful of employees small bonuses. She replaced outdated materials and finally repaired her business’s cracked parking lot. She paid for CPR and first aid trainings. The extra money gave her a little bit of breathing room, especially as gas and food costs climbed. Now, Nared is bracing for the new reality without additional funding.  

Jennifer Baumann, a home-based provider in Chadron, said she was almost at the point of closing when the pandemic aid arrived. With it, she was able to hire a co-teacher and keep her business open during a precarious time after she was hospitalized with COVID-19 and suffered a pulmonary embolism. Many child care businesses, especially home-based ones, do not have substitute teachers to rely on.  

She cares for the children of doctors, bankers, employees of Chadron State College and city departments and says if she doesn’t work, they don’t work.

In Nebraska, 72% of children under 6 live in homes where all adults work. That’s why child care shortages affect all of us, not just families with young children and those who work in the field. 

There are multiple advantages to helping providers and stabilizing Nebraska’s early childhood system. More parents can stay in the workforce at a time when Nebraska is trying to find and retain more qualified workers. More children can reap the short- and long-term benefits of quality early education that prepares them for school and life. More providers can run successful small businesses that invest back into their communities. 

Child care providers often talk about their job as a calling. As home to one of the largest child care networks in the nation and the largest Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership in Nebraska, the Nebraska Early Childhood Collaborative has the privilege of working with passionate child care business owners and educators. We see how much they love helping young children grow, and how impactful their work is to a child's lifelong success in school and life.

Baumann said there is nothing more satisfying than seeing children learn. But love alone won’t pay the bills. In this country, we subsidize corn, ethanol, and other industries with public dollars. We subsidize public education, starting when a child enters Kindergarten. But for children younger than 5, families and child care providers are largely on their own to absorb the costs. This is an arbitrary and short-sighted choice with no market-based solution in sight. Providers can't charge more and parents can’t pay it. If we value families and women in the workforce, we must also value the (predominately women-led) industry of child care and the early educators who care for our children.

Some states, like New Mexico, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota, are testing out their own solutions, expanding access to PreK, allocating money to increase early educator salaries, or raising reimbursements rates for lower-income families. 

We must do more to stabilize the future of early childhood in Nebraska. This past legislative session at the Unicameral brought with it important steps forward by way of new tax credits for providers and businesses as well as critical attention to increased provider rates and child care assistance eligibility. There is no time like the present for Nebraska to join other states with even more solution-oriented measures to address the issues that have long plagued the early childhood field, including the need for long-term public investment.  

Nebraskans can tackle tough problems. We owe it to our children, families, and to early childhood professionals like Deb and Jennifer to tackle this one together.

Sarah Ann Kotchian serves as chief executive officer of the Nebraska Early Childhood Collaborative, an organization that gives parents and child care providers the guidance and resources they need to give children the education they deserve. Sarah Ann brings to this role deep experience in nonprofit strategy, corporate development, and early childhood policy and practice.

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