Economy forcing day care closures, report states

The continuing tough economy is threatening day care quality in Georgia, and many of them are closing, according to a state report.

Georgia saw a net loss of 771 licensed day care programs in 2011, including 601 family home child care programs, 140 day care centers and 30 group homes, the report states.

In 2012 so far, Bibb County has seen the permanent closure of four high-profile day cares: Bright Star on Price Road, both Children’s Sesame locations and the decades-old Wesleyan Drive Baptist Church Wee Center.

According to parents whose children attended, Bright Star and the Children’s Sesame locations closed with less than a week’s notice.

The Quality Care for Children report, based on a survey of day cares by the nonprofit of the same name, predicts that more child care programs will fail over the next year, leaving room for unlicensed programs to take their place. More than a quarter of day cares surveyed indicated that they were worried they would have to close, according to the report, released last month.

Quality Care for Children and the state Department of Early Care and Learning, which oversees day care and Georgia pre-K, offered very different calculations for the total number of child care programs that have closed since 2009. But both show a significant loss in family home day cares. Quality Care for Children also found a drop in the number of day care centers.

Theresa Prestwood, vice president of development and marketing for Quality Care for Children, said her organization’s numbers are based on those provided by DECAL. Officials with both agencies weren’t sure about the reason for the difference.

The Quality Care for Children survey results include responses from 342 child care centers and 539 family home day cares. It was the fourth year the survey was conducted.

Among its key findings: Georgia child care providers’ expenses continue to rise while revenues fall. As a result, they are facing four straight years of bare-bones investment in their programs.

“And after so many years of under-investing, it will be hard to regain their former level of quality,” the report states.

Half the day care centers surveyed -- and almost 70 percent of family home day cares -- reported eliminating new equipment, materials, books and toys from their budgets. Sixty-five percent of day care centers and 68 percent of family home day cares planned to delay necessary improvements to their buildings and grounds, according to the report.

And 27 percent of day care centers -- a 13 percent increase over last year -- said they had stopped paying for or providing staff training.

New teacher education requirements were a factor in the closure of some day cares, particularly family home day cares, said Prestwood and DECAL Commissioner Bobby Cagle.

In 2009, Georgia began requiring a child development associate credential for new family home day care providers. The credential requires 120 hours of class work and 420 hours of classroom teaching experience, Prestwood said.

No other states require that credential when a family home day care first opens. Her organization is concerned that some of these providers chose to go “underground” and offer unlicensed care rather than pursue the credential.

The credential will also be required of directors and lead teachers at day care centers starting Dec. 1.

Downsizing and cutting hours

Cagle acknowledged that some day cares are having trouble finding qualified employees in time, despite a three-year window to prepare. The state is providing some with waivers, giving them as much as three additional years to comply.

Remaining day cares are downsizing, the survey found. Nearly 72 percent of day care centers reported cutting staff hours, and 46 percent had reduced staff size.

“This is an industry under stress,” said Carolyn Salvador, executive director of the Georgia Child Care Association. Since the recession, child care providers often absorb losses by allowing families to pay less or pay late when they suffer unemployment or struggle as they work multiple jobs, she said.

The Quality Care for Children survey found that 87 percent of day care centers and 53 percent of family child care providers saw children leave because a parent had lost a job. Day cares also tried to accommodate families suffering from unemployment, losing revenue in the process: 43 percent of day care centers and 63 percent of family home day cares surveyed allowed some children to attend for free in 2011.

“Child care is often one of the last expenses paid,” Salvador said. “Those weathering the storm are doing so with decreased tuition revenue.”

Cagle said he is not sure whether the number of day care closures were higher in urban or rural areas, but he thought the most economically distressed areas have been the hardest hit. That’s partly because those day cares rely heavily on a federal subsidy that covers most of the cost of care for poor children.

The state has not increased the amount of subsidy it provides for poor children in child care since 2006, which has worsened the problem, Salvador said.

“(Day cares) aren’t closing because all those kids moved away,” said Tony Foskey, vice president of the Children’s Friend day care chain based in Warner Robins. “They’re closing because they haven’t had a raise in six years.”

The state is helping by providing new grants and incentives for day cares that strive to improve by enrolling in Georgia’s new Quality Rated program, Cagle said. It also recently completed a review of state day care rules and has submitted a report to Gov. Nathan Deal recommending ways to streamline them, potentially clarifying and easing some regulations.

Prestwood said Quality Care for Children applauds the state for its new Quality Rated system and Cagle for raising funds from private businesses and foundations to support day care quality initiatives. But further investment will have to happen to keep quality day cares afloat, she said.

Quality Care for Children offers various supports to help needy children stay in day care and to help licensed day cares to stay in business. For example, it paid day care for 420 families in crisis during 2011.

“We could probably have served four times as many families if we had the money,” Prestwood said. “Some people we’re helping now had middle income jobs and were laid off, can’t find new jobs, and have blown through all their savings and 401(k). People that never anticipated they would be in this situation.”

To contact writer Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.