By Ashanti Bryant, IFF Director of Early Childhood Education Services
When most people think of childcare within their communities, they generally envision a brick-and-mortar storefront – maybe something with a parking lot, outdoor play area, and multiple classrooms for children of different ages. There’s probably a large, bright sign in front featuring the name of the business – something with alphabet blocks or tiny handprints.
But the reality is that nearly half of the childcare providers in Michigan are based out of their homes, where they operate small programs generally serving 6-12 children at a time. And while each home-based provider is small, they serve a significant number of children collectively – more than 1,200 kids here in Kent County alone. They are licensed businesses, but they are largely invisible – you might drive by 10 home-based programs in your community today and not even recognize them.
That invisibility is, unfortunately, present in funding and policies for home-based providers as well.
Operating any early childhood education (ECE) center – at home or at a larger facility – is extremely challenging under the best of circumstances. Consider:
- The alphabet soup of reimbursement programs from state and federal sources depending on the age, income, and location of the child served can be confusing and is applied inconsistently.
- It’s incredibly challenging to hire quality teachers in an economy that pays more to work at Costco than it does to those who care for and educate young children.
- The pandemic has created complexities that both elevated the critical need for ECE providers so that our essential workers could go to work, while also shuttering hundreds of ECE businesses that quickly lost enrollment and closed their doors as parents kept their children home.
These impacts have fallen disproportionately on minority women providers serving lower-to-moderate income families in neighborhoods throughout our entire country.
While there are some systems in place to assist childcare providers, they tend to fall short of offering meaningful and accessible support for all. For example, Michigan offers subsidy programs to low-income families to cover a portion of childcare services; however, these subsidies are based on a market value that does not reflect the true cost of care. This means providers are being underpaid while still expected to maintain facilities, compensate staff, and provide high-quality programming and care.
These conditions are even more acute for home-based providers, who face additional barriers to accessing some of the funding and supports that exist for other, larger providers. For example:
- Certification Barriers and Workload Challenges: To be eligible for some funding, providers must hold multiple certifications. Certifications cost time and money, which are in extremely short supply if you’re in charge of not only caring for children from sun-up to sun-down, but also in charge of marketing, billing, cleaning, and managing children and family dynamics for your program. There’s often no separation between management roles, teaching, and supporting staff for home-based providers – usually one provider is doing almost everything, with little margins and not enough time. Essentially, in order to access resources, you must already have resources; this catch-22 highlights a historical systemic issue: providers who need help the most receive the least.
- Facility Improvement Barriers: Facility quality is a critical component of early childhood education. Safe, inspiring spaces are proven to positively impact children’s brain development through features like soothing colors, natural lighting, comfortable temperatures, dedicated active/quiet zones, access to the outdoors, and more. But many of those features can be hard to implement on a tight budget (and with no “extra” time to think about it!). Usually, facility improvements can only be made if there is an outside funding source, such as a capital grant from the government – but those usually don’t apply to home-based providers because of the nuances to subsidizing improvements on private residences. Consequently, home-based providers who care for thousands of children often cannot make improvements to their facilities.
Usually, facility improvements can only be made if there is an outside funding source, such as a capital grant from the government – but those usually don’t apply to home-based providers because of the nuances to subsidizing improvements on private residences. Consequently, home-based providers who care for thousands of children often cannot make improvements to their facilities.
IFF, a nonprofit organization that has worked to expand access to high-quality ECE in low-income communities throughout the Midwest for more than 30 years, has been a visible early childhood partner in Michigan for the last decade. We’ve been able to make social impact by partnering with childcare providers to expand and upgrade their facilities in line with their visions and dreams for the care of children. IFF also contributes our voices alongside national organizations advocating for home-based providers (like our friends at Home Grown and All Our Kin, for example). That work includes grants, loans, technical assistance, and professional development opportunities – in particular those offered by IFF’s Learning Spaces program, which began in Detroit in 2017 and expanded to Grand Rapids in 2020, as well as IFF’s Quality Facilities for All program, which launched in Illinois in 2020.
IFF’s Learning Spaces work originally focused only on center-based ECE providers. Like many other forms of support from government/philanthropic/nonprofit sources, resources were limited and we aimed to make the biggest possible impact. But when we truly embedded ourselves in relationships and in the robust early childhood ecosystems in these cities, we quickly realized the critical and vital role that home-based providers played in service to communities.
When IFF partnered in Grand Rapids, our research highlighted that only 7,600 of the 12,000 children in need of ECE services were able to access it, and more than two-thirds of that need existed in predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods within the City’s limits. Closing that gap requires intentional and uncommon collaboration with the full system of care in Grand Rapids and Kent County – including home-based providers who serve so many families in these communities.
Our work continues, but so far we’ve curated millions in investments to enhance facilities in Michigan — approximately $4 million in Detroit over the last 5 years and just under $1 million in Grand Rapids in the last year alone. Of that investment, approximately 40% has been in partnership with home-based providers.
We share this because our communities need other ECE facilities champions to emerge – from government to philanthropy to employers and even private investors – to similarly expand investment into these small business childcare providers who are true anchors in many communities.