In 2010, El Pomar started the Regional Strategic Support project, a team of El Pomar Fellows dedicated to helping El Pomar’s Regional Councils maximize the strategic effectiveness of their grant dollars by tracking, analyzing, and spreading cross-regional knowledge, best practices, and ideas. Periodically, the blog will feature stories that focus on RSST research projects. Below is the first in this series.
Of all the factors that go into sustaining the modern workforce, child care might be one of the most overlooked and underappreciated. It is particularly tricky in rural areas, where options are often limited and parents have to choose: stay at home or go to work. Another challenge? Making sustainable improvements at a systemic level.
In 2007, El Pomar’s Northeast Regional Council recognized the dilemma and sought to address it in two different ways. The Council recommended similar-sized grants to two organizations. The goal in both cases was to help the region’s workforce by addressing the childcare shortage. The organizations approached the problem from different directions; one focused on increasing quality, and the other capacity. RSST Fellow Virginia Woodfork followed up on the 2007 childcare grants. This is what she found:
Morgan County Family Center focused on increasing the quality of existing child care providers. The idea? It’s one thing to be able to keep an eye on kids—it’s another to run a sustainable business that attracts customers. The Family Center gave 13 providers the opportunity to participate in professional development workshops and trainings. Mary Gross, the executive director, said, “The workshops and trainings combine group sessions with individual coaching. The entire program helps providers improve their Qualistar Rating.” The Qualistar rating system shows providers the strengths and weaknesses of their approaches and helps them develop a detailed improvement plan. It is a tough program, but one that can offer results—six providers improved their rating in 2008.
Rural Communities Resource Center focused on capacity. Since the core need in the area was an increase in the number of providers, it seemed to make sense to focus on helping new providers get started. RCRC offered mini-grants ranging from $600 to $1,000, which new providers used to offset the costs of licensing fees and other startup expenses. It also provided training workshops. Eight providers took advantage of the mini-grants in 2008, and 104 attended the 2008 workshops. Director Sheila Anzlovar noted that to receive a mini-grant, providers had to sign a contract to show that they were creating a new child care option in their county. They also had to agree to provide child care for at least one family that qualified for the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program (CCCAP), and continue to provide licensed care for at least one year. The hope was to help get providers off the ground, addressing the core issue: capacity.
Both grants revealed that plenty of factors play into what appears to be one “core issue.” Often, the reason one area has few childcare providers has less to do with interest than with the sustainability of the business. For example, a provider might be good at taking care of kids, but not know how to handle a situation in which a family isn’t paying the childcare bill on time. Or perhaps the families in an area are so far apart that it is difficult to care for enough children to make the business viable.
Elements like these make childcare a tough market in which to survive as a business. In El Paso County, for example, hundreds of new providers are licensed every year. Yet at any given time, there are only 400-500 registered providers—meaning every year, dozens and even hundreds are quitting. Unless a provider is well-prepared to handle not only kids but business issues, and unless the local conditions make childcare feasible, caring for the children of an area’s workforce remains a bit of a revolving door problem.
The Northeast Council grants revealed there is more work to be done. Follow up, for example, has been a challenge. And treating childcare as an economic development strategy when the providers aren’t prepared to run a business can be futile. Unless the providers can sustain themselves once created, their businesses (and any economic development hopes attached to them) won’t last long.
Now back to the question of effective funding to address this issue. Can philanthropists best help meet childcare needs by funding capacity-building or quality-building efforts? As usual, understanding local conditions becomes key to answering this question in specific circumstances. But in any situation, for tomorrow’s childcare to work, providers need to be equipped to handle the multi-faceted challenge childcare presents—and funders need to think accordingly.