Waco resident Catelia Vázquez was well aware of the difficulty many parents had in finding quality child care in Waco and McLennan County through her work as nonprofit systems coordinator with Transformation Waco schools and supervisor of operations for Inspiracíon, a Spanish-language early childhood program for young at-risk children and their parents.
She had seen others struggle with long waits for infrequent openings, hours or locations that complicated work schedules or family transportation, and costs that squeezed home budgets.
Her second-hand knowledge turned first-hand last year when she and her husband, Eduardo Vázquez, were expecting their first child. Catelia Vázquez, a planner by nature, scrambled in the months before daughter Elena’s birth to research what centers offered the best in early childhood enrichment.
“I like to be ahead in the game, but I was late in the game in getting on waitlists,” she said.
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As they waited and waited, she and her husband, a seasoned loan officer with First Central Credit Union, calculated the cost and arrived at an unanticipated answer: It might be better for one of them to stay at home.
“She left me the financial numbers and as we looked at the options of her staying (home) and me staying, it was more feasible for me to step away and try something new,” Eduardo Vázquez said. “It wasn’t a hard decision to make. Being able to spend that time with our daughter, interact with her and see her grow, it really weighed heavily in my decision. Leaving the money on the table was difficult, though.”
The Vázquezes are not alone. The difficulty of finding affordable, accessible child care is driving many parents to turn to home care with family, neighbors, paid help or a parent who quits work. Catelia Vázquez counts off four family members and friends whose young children are at home with parents or family rather than at a child care center.
Two years of COVID-19 induced lockdowns, school and child care center closures, and businesses shifting to work-from-home modes only amplified chronic issues with child care. In some cases, problems worsened as small centers closed for good and low-paid employees opted to leave. At the same time, a broader awareness of the part that affordable child care can play in employment and community may be moving the needle toward solutions.
Access, cost problems
Daelynn Copeland, McLennan Community College assistant professor and program director of MCC’s Child Studies and Education, has a vantage point of seeing both the training of new child care providers and the dynamics of a working center, MCC’s Child Development Center.
Pressures on the industry have accelerated in recent years, Copeland said.
“(Demand) is as high as it’s ever been. Demand has increased and fewer enrollment seats are available,” she said. “There are staffing shortages nationwide and a shortage of highly qualified individuals.”
Those pressures create what some see as a cruel conundrum: Efforts to improve the quality of child care, such as paying employees more and requiring certain training, often put its cost beyond the reach of many families.
“People are having to make really, really hard choices,” said Tiffani Johnson, United Way of Waco-McLennan County’s senior director of impact and engagement.
Johnson was heavily involved in United Way’s recently released Community Action Plan and last year’s “Are The Children Well?” report, both aimed at improving early childhood well-being in the county.
With more than 21,000 children 5 and younger living in McLennan County, about 8% of the county’s population, child care has long been on United Way’s radar as the nonprofit has shifted to an early childhood emphasis in recent years, she said. According to the Texas Department of Health and Human Services, 178 businesses, nonprofits and homes provide child care in McLennan County, with a total capacity of 11,425 children served, plus another 604 in residential care.
The United Way report and action plan drew on input from 825 county residents in forums and small groups, including elected officials and service providers.
Parents and guardians shared frustrations with too few openings for their children and months spent on waiting lists, few centers located in their neighborhood or near their jobs, or inconvenient operating hours.
Cost was another major concern. Though fees vary according to facility size and offerings, most parents reported paying between $500 and $1,000 monthly per child.
The costs over a year add up to a considerable budget bite, perhaps 15-25% of the 2020 median household income of $50,210 in McLennan County.
“That’s comparable to rent or a mortgage,” Johnson said.
As parents seeking child care know all too well, not all available openings are created equal. Infant care requires more adults than care for 3- or 4-year-olds. State staffing guidelines require one adult for every four infants, one adult for every five toddlers, one adult for every 11 2-year-olds, one for every 15 3-year-olds and one for every 18 4-year-olds.
The MCC center cares for about 80 to 85 children during the school year, more in summer, but only eight are infants.
“We have an extensive waiting list, especially for infants and toddlers,” Copeland said.
For many center administrators, staffing can be a headache. State figures for 2021 show a 13.8% employee turnover rate, 38.4% of workers with one to three years of experience and 10.6% of workers with less than a year of experience. Those leaving often cite low pay as a major factor.
While the number of MCC students pursuing a degree or certification in child development has remained somewhat steady, Copeland said some who finish their degree are taking jobs in different fields because of low child care salaries.
Julie Talbert, manager of child care for the Heart of Texas Workforce Development Board, said staffing shortages last year led about half of the child care programs in her service area to close at least one classroom. COVID-19 relief funding aimed at helping child care centers recover financial losses has allowed some to hire staff. As a result, Talbert has been able to enroll 400 more children in programs over the last three months, she said.
Talbert works to secure child care subsidies for low-income families in the six-county area served by Heart of Texas Workforce Solutions. At the moment the organization is providing subsidies covering up to 75% of average child care costs for 1,560 families. That translates into 2,648 children in licensed child care centers.
Child care and employment are crucially linked, freeing up parents and family members for jobs and strengthening their children’s development and leading to success later in school, Talbert said. Many employers had their eyes opened to that fact during pandemic disruptions and are now more open to exploring ways to help provide it for their workers.
Several of the child care recommendations in the United Way’s action plan, in fact, urge local governments to encourage businesses moving into the community to consider creating onsite child are or offering child care subsidies to their employees.
Advocates of early childhood support have worked to expand child care capacity in the county and its quality as well. Talbert said the county has made progress in the latter, with more than half of child care operations, 57%, participating in the Texas Rising Star program, which sets standards for child care facilities to encourage improvement. Texas Rising Star ratings of two to four stars also are intended to guide families looking for child care options.
Of the 39 Texas Rising Star rated centers in McLennan County, 20 have a three-star rating and nine a four-star.
Officials said efforts are growing for collaborations among city and county governments, businesses, schools and nonprofits to tackle various approaches in expanding child care access, improving its quality and bringing down its cost.
“People are realizing that the child care industry will not sustain itself,” Johnson said.
Talbert said a combination of state and private funding for certain projects may offer a way forward in providing incentives for businesses to shoulder more child care provision. In some cases, school districts might coordinate their pre-K programs with offerings at child care centers in such a way that neither lose funding for those students. Child care centers also may explore ways to share common administrative duties or supply purchasing to lower costs.
This fall will see the United Way move into the next phase of its community action plan, convening various community partners to brainstorm ways to boost early childhood resources in the county. The plan’s child care suggestions look at big and small parts of the problem:
- Encourage employers to provide high-quality, on-site child care or child care subsidies for their employees
- lobby for state and local policies that support affordable child care and promote higher pay for child care workers
- provide incentives to businesses working to provide access to child care
- expand child care options offering flexible hours
- local shared services model where centers can pool resources
- require child care centers applying for public funds to make salary increases and professional development for employees a priority
- promote Texas Rising Star and National Association for the Education of Young Children rated centers as high-quality options
- expand language options, such as bilingual or multi-lingual teachers or children’s programs.
Talbert said she thinks the pandemic may have planted seeds for the collaborative efforts to improve child care and is cautiously optimistic.
“There’s been so much attention paid to child care in the last two years. How do you put the genie back in the bottle?” she said.
Some of those solutions are months, if not years away, and thousands of McLennan County parents like the Vázquezes still grapple with the question of how to take care of their young children while working.
“Yes, McLennan County has made progress, but the needle hasn’t moved enough,” Catelia Vázquez said.
In October, daughter Elena will celebrate her first year.
The Vázquezes are still on their child care center waitlists.