Most Austin families cannot access high-quality child care, leaving a majority of children unprepared

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When 2-year old Juniper Smith arrives at Sweet Briar Child Development Center one Thursday morning in November, after kissing her father goodbye, she and her 10 other classmates discuss their “feeling faces.”

An assortment of expressive, paper faces—happy, sad, excited, angry—lay scattered before the children. One by one each child chooses the face he or she relates to that morning. All together the class practices the facial expressions.  Through the exercise the children learn increased control and awareness of their emotions. Afterwards, the class plays “I Spy,”  discusses the changing colors of the autumn leaves, and eventually gathers around a table for a family-style lunch, during which the children pass each other dishes and practice table etiquette.

By the time Juniper turns 5, unlike 54 percent of her Austin peers, she will likely be ready for kindergarten.

Because she’s at the appropriate learning level by the start of kindergarten, Juniper will be four to five times more likely to pass her third-grade STAAR test—the first standardized test issued to Texas public school students—according to the regional education data organization E3 Alliance. And with success on the exam, the likelihood of Juniper’s future academic achievement, statistically speaking, substantially increases.

All this, experts say, because she attended a high-quality child care center leading up to kindergarten, one that focuses on education and emotional growth through curriculum rather than simply day care. This builds off recent discoveries in child brain development, said Cathy McHorse, vice president of United Way Austin’s Success by Six program.

“About 90 percent of a child’s brain develops between ages 0 and 5,” McHorse said. “We know that access to high-quality child care usually results in kindergarten readiness.”

Child development experts say the type of child care Juniper receives is crucial; however, only 13 percent of the city’s 702 child care centers received high-quality accreditation from qualified national or state organizations, according to a report published this year by the Austin Public Health Department. These centers are often financially inaccessible or have waitlists that can be years long.

In Austin, 62 percent of children under age 6 have all their parents in the workforce, according to recent Census estimates.  With demand growing, local experts see Austin’s child care issues as an emergency.

The city’s government has tried to step in recently to weaken the burden on Austin families through funding, zoning and permitting, and additional resources; however, many say the barriers to accessible high-quality child care result from the unique nature of the early childhood education industry.

The “major cost” issue

Davonne Smith was four months pregnant with Juniper when she and her husband began shopping for child care. After a few centers told them of multiple-year waitlists, Smith worried she started the search too late. They spent around $100 just getting on waitlists before finding quality infant care for $1,000 per month.

For toddler care the Smiths wanted something different and had specific criteria in mind: a good licensing history with few citations, quality staff and low turnover, cultural diversity, structured curriculum and affordability. They struggled to find an adequate place without a long waitlist.

Although the federal government recommends child care not exceed 7 percent of a family’s annual income, McHorse said most Austin families pay more than 10 percent and, in some cases, between 35 and 40 percent.

“Tuition at a high-quality child care center can cost as much or more than a year’s [in-state] tuition at [The University of Texas],” McHorse said. “And you don’t have 18 years to save up for it.”

At $9,000 per year Juniper’s tuition at Sweet Briar costs 15 percent of her parents’ $60,000 household income, but  Smith said the price was competitive for the quality. About half of her monthly earnings go toward her 2-year-old daughter’s education, but she said the value of the high-quality child care extends to many levels.

Many of Smith’s friends are stay-at-home parents, but she said showing Juniper she participates in the workforce makes her a “better parent” and hopes it will help instill a sense of independence in her daughter. Smith also said the education and development Juniper receives far exceeds the effort to pay for it.

“It’s a major cost, but these are proven professionals, and Juniper comes home learning things I probably couldn’t teach her,” Smith said. “I need to know that she is learning and socializing and growing in her own ways. I have a life outside of her, but also she needs a life outside of me. We’re always trying to cultivate independence.”

An “unsolved puzzle”

The recent discoveries in early childhood brain development have sparked a heightened focus on, and demand for, child care that offers more than just babysitting, McHorse said.

“Thinking creatively, thinking divergently and persistence are skills largely acquired in child care,” said Mary Jamsek, a Pritzker Early Childhood Fellow with Austin Public Health. “To acquire them, you need a teacher who spends time with the children, helping them figure out a balance between persistence and frustration. Child care is very human-intensive.”

Many experts agree the quality of child care rests on environment and the value of the interactions between child and teacher. Although a low student-teacher ratio opens more potential for those connections, sustaining that ratio with quality staff is expensive.

Sweet Briar Executive Director Patricia Smith said staffing remains her biggest challenge—it took over a decade to put together the team she has today. With the average wage for child care employees in Austin ranging roughly between $10 and $15 per hour, Patricia Smith called it a “labor of love.”

Child care centers operate on thin margins, and a teacher pay increase would lead to higher rates, furthering accessibility issues said Rachel Farley, early childhood specialist with Austin Public Health.

“Ideally teachers would have a strong education, but you can’t expect someone to earn that education without being compensated for it,” Farley said. “Child care is already a big stretch, and parents can and are willing to only pay so much. There is this unsolved puzzle in how we can tackle that all together.”

City government steps in

Over the last year Austin City Council members Delia Garza and Kathie Tovo have tried to increase awareness of the child care issue.

Following a string of recommendations in the spring, Austin City Council allocated funds in the recent budget to cover startup costs for eight Austin ISD 3-year-old preschool classrooms. The city also hired staff to seek out incentive programs and partnerships that could lift some of the financial weight off child care centers.

In October, Garza and her council colleagues directed City Manager Spencer Cronk to work with the city’s land-use staff to lift barriers to child care center development, either through fee waivers or permitting the centers in more zoning categories. The resolution responds directly to an Austin Public Health report that showed each City Council district had too few high-quality child care centers.

Jamsek and Farley said cities should aim for 100 percent of their child care centers to be high-quality and accessible. Laura Koenig, senior director with the E3 Alliance, said the educational achievement of a child increases their economic potential—and it all starts with high-quality child care.

“[Middle-of-the-road] child care will not change the trajectory of where a child is,” Koenig said. “But high-quality childcare could be life-changing for the child and family.”
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, USA Today and several other local outlets along the east coast.


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