This actually works!" A 3-year-old wearing a plastic fireman hat yells in delight when he gets a turn to use a walkie-talkie at La Casita Preschool in Santa Fe. He and 15 other 3- to 5-year-olds are busy constructing a fire engine out of cardboard boxes in the school's backyard the day after visiting a firehouse on a field trip.
The school, which is one of Santa Fe's few nonprofit child care centers, is designed around the Reggio Emelia educational philosophy, according to Director Sheri Carroll. The teachers try to encourage learning to happen organically, spurred by the children's own interests. Right now, the kids are interested in transportation. The day after SFR's tour, they were paid a visit by a real live horse.
Over the past 10 years, the number of child care providers such as La Casita—considered a child care center—has increased by 125.
At the same time, the number of home-based child care centers has dropped—by more than 4,000.
Despite a growing perception by families of fewer child care options, the number of "slots" for children remains the same because centers can care for as many as 125 children—with a maximum adult-to-child ratio of one to 12. Home care centers, on the other hand, can have no more than six kids per adult.
"When I was first looking, that was what I rather would have," parent and Kids Crossing Director Dee Beingessner says of home child care providers. "But you're in a little bit more precarious situation. At least at a center, there's a few more teachers around—instead, you need to worry about things like them being exposed to more colds. But there's less concern about the adult doing things."
In response to mounting evidence that child care and preschool represents not just babysitting, but the opportunity to jump-start kids' learning, the state has instituted ambitious changes over the past few years to the way child care is regulated. Oversight of providers by the state Children, Youth and Families Department has increased, with background checks mandatory for all adults who come in contact with kids, and a detailed quality assessment "star rating" system has been implemented to encourage providers to improve their care.
But the resulting shift has created fewer options for affordable child care; centers are typically more expensive than home-based care, costing between $720 and $1,000 per month, while homes run closer to $600.
As costs for child care overall have increased, CYFD's child care subsidies have fallen further short of meeting them, often causing low-income parents to pay extra out of pocket. More than 200 income-eligible kids in Santa Fe are currently on waiting lists for federally funded Head Start and Early Head Start programs, while 4,643 children statewide are waiting to receive CYFD subsidies.
The shift also has pushed some providers underground, and made it even harder for some small providers to survive—one closed March 9 and another in late February.
Considering how big a chunk her mortgage and expenses for her three children took out of her Santa Fe County paycheck, Sherie Lopez thought her family would be eligible for a subsidy, but was told her income was too high. That's not the case anymore—Lopez quit her job of eight years after trying out six different child care providers for her toddler Andy. The $600 per month she was paying for child care was too much to handle along with her other bills, but was not enough to buy satisfactory care and peace of mind.
"I just have to stay home with him and figure out something else to get me some income," Lopez says.
During her child care search, Lopez explored every option in her price range—from intimate home child care providers to large centers, such as La Petite Academy, a Chicago-based chain with an outlet on the south side of Santa Fe that holds 125 kids. LPA charges $800 per month for children under 2, but less than $600 per month for older children. Lopez had a negative impression of LPA, which was the only Santa Fe child care center that rebuffed SFR's request for a quick unscheduled interview and tour.
Center Director Terrance Gandert said he would check with headquarters and get in touch if given permission to speak, but never did.
Garcia Street Club also is classified as a center, but has a much smaller 40-student capacity and only takes children age 2 to 5. GSC has a school environment, with kids' artwork—including a 10-foot-long painted cardboard-and-paper dragon the kids made for Chinese New Year—adorning the adobe walls, separate classrooms for different ages, and a little library. When SFR visited, the 2-year-olds were captivated by a soft foam pneumatic rocket that launched—with adult assistance—from the push of a pedal.
Bigger kids were pushing miniature dump trucks and climbing on playground equipment in the school's spacious play yard.
Child care homes are even smaller, and can be quieter and more low-key. Helena Mitchell, a former special education teacher with a master's degree in education and a calming presence, emphasizes imaginative play in her home-based care.
"I've had people come and say places are too big or chaotic or they didn't want to throw their kid into a big giant place, or they had tried it and it's just too much," Mitchell says. "Their child was young and they still needed a smaller group, more attention, or they were lost and unhappy."
The National Academy of Early Childhood Programs sets as part of its accreditation criteria a maximum group size of 12 for children under 2. National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care 2002 research indicates kids ages 5 and younger should be cared for in groups no larger than 16, but smaller sub-groups in a larger setting can fulfill that requirement.
"In general, the fewer kids there are per caregiver or teacher, the better," New Mexico Voices for Children spokeswoman Sharon Kayne says.
Nonetheless, larger centers are thriving, while smaller, home-based ones are not.
Larger centers benefit from state regulations that allow them to maintain a smaller adult-to-child ratio than child care homes. The centers also benefit from larger reimbursement rates from CYFD for state-subsidized kids—$542 on average, compared with $431 for homes.
But both homes and centers—and therefore many families—are affected by CYFD's current funding crunch; its child care assistance budget dropped 19 percent from fiscal year 2010 to fiscal year 2011. Technically, all families whose annual income is less than twice the federal poverty guidelines ($29,420 for a two-person family) are eligible for subsidized child care. Right now, however, only families under the FPG are receiving benefits—for a two-person family, that's an annual income of $14,710.
Those subsidy amounts are widely considered inadequate; the two child care providers who closed down most recently blame the amount of CYFD reimbursements. Pam Prada at The Giving Tree Early Childhood Center, a small center, took in CYFD-subsidized kids almost exclusively and ultimately had to shut down. Laurie Allocca at Holy Faith Early Childhood Community fell into the same trap. Prada claims some surviving providers who take CYFD-subsidized kids accept payments from those parents on top of the subsidies.
"The centers sometimes charge hundreds [on top of the subsidy]," Prada writes SFR in an email. "And these are high end preschools like Garcia Street [Club] and other accredited centers. Families are forced to pay if they need the care since space is so limited. The centers do this to survive."
GSC Director Michele Biller acknowledges that GSC does accept private payments from CYFD-subsidized clients, to bridge some of the gap between the subsidies of approximately $550 per month and tuition of nearly $1,000.
She says GSC's tuition is high partly because it has to offset the low CYFD subsidies, and doesn't want to exclude those children from its program. CYFD spokesman Enrique Knell says that the only extra charges subsidized parents should pay directly to the center are materials or field trip fees, and then they can't exceed corresponding fees for private pay clients.
The number of children who are receiving the CYFD subsidy has decreased approximately 6 percent over the past 10 years. In 2011, approximately 22,000 children receive subsidies, while another 4,643 are eligible and waiting.
Low-income families also can receive assistance through the federal Head Start and Early Head Start (for younger kids) programs, which have a total of 16 facilities in Santa Fe after adding three last year. Eligibility for those is also set at the federal poverty guideline but, because of the demand, other criteria that make a child especially needy are also considered, according to Amanacer Early Head Start Director Maria Wickstrom.
Wickstrom tells SFR that her new facility is licensed to hold more than the 40 infants and toddlers who were snoozing on little mesh cots in a maze of rooms during SFR's visit.
Licensing surveys for other Santa Fe Head Start and Early Head Start programs also show vacancies; Presbyterian Medical Services Head Start Flores del Sol had 38 open spaces when the state did its last census. Yet Wickstrom says the current waiting list for her site alone is approximately 80 qualified applicants. PMS Children's Services Manager Michelle Quintana says all of the Santa Fe sites are filled to capacity, and would require more funding and, in some cases, more square footage, to accommodate more kids.
"The amount New Mexico spends out of its general fund for early childhood to 5 years old is about $37.5 million," Brindle Foundation Executive Director Kim Straus says. "Corrections and child protection is $372 million. Think of how much money we spend on prisons as compared to what we spend on our youngest children! We spend about $35,000 a year to keep an inmate in the state penitentiary. We spend $3,500 a year for children to get home visiting services or pre-kindergarten. Are we better just having babies go to jail 'cause they'll get better care than if they're in our community?"
Some say the other consequence of insufficient subsidies for low-income families and skyrocketing child care costs is an increase in unlicensed, unregistered providers.
"Many families are forced to leave their children in unsafe, unsupervised homes because there are few, if any, openings in Head Start, and the cost of child care is too high to pay alone," Prada says.
A private consulting firm hired by the state to survey child care in the Santa Fe area estimates that unlicensed child care in Santa Fe probably costs approximately $10 per day. Its report speculates that some of the 4,000 child care homes that disappeared from the map over the past 10 years didn't go out of business, but have foregone the licensing or registration process.
Knell says CYFD believes its background check requirement directly led to the loss of those providers, although he tells SFR the state doesn't have a record of how many homes didn't pass background checks and how many ducked out in an apparent attempt to avoid them.
The Craigslist online directory for the Santa Fe area abounds with ads for home-based child care facilities that don't claim to be state-licensed, along with ads from licensed providers trying to fill vacant spaces. Under state law, child care providers can care for as many as four non-resident children (but no more than two under age 2) without the state's blessing. The state doesn't have an estimate of how many child care providers are operating illegally in the Santa Fe area, but last fall's state-commissioned study by Coop Consulting noted that it's believed there are a "high number." Most caregivers who didn't mention registration or certification in their online advertisements abruptly hung up on SFR after saying they weren't interested in talking.
"If [parents] have been with a center that's been unlicensed, they usually have something worked out with the day care…where they're not charged as much because they know they don't carry a license, see, so that's kind of like, 'I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine,'" Liz Hussey, who runs Small World Learning Center, says. "And there's so many [providers] out there without licenses and a lot of people take [their kids] to family members, and one friend says, 'Well, can you take mine also?' You know, that's how that started. But it makes it very hard for us who work so hard to keep up our class schedule and work with the kids and maintain a license and liability insurance and everything."
Licensed child care provider Dorene Rodriguez tells SFR that clients frequently tell her about their experiences with under-the-table homes.
"I just had an interview this past week and the lady said she just pulled her daughter out of a place that was not licensed because all they did was sit in front of the TV all day," Rodriguez says.
Leigh Fernandez, director of CYFD's Technical Training and Assistance Program in Santa Fe, says there are probably providers operating off the grid who are doing a great job caring for kids, but that doesn't eliminate concerns about their operations.
"A lot of them don't carry liability insurance, which is a very huge risk when you're taking care of little children in your home," Fernandez says. "I think that's a factor that a lot of folks don't take under consideration. Also you're taking a risk if you're not charging gross receipts taxes, with the IRS. And just not having the accountability, having the various safety features in your home that you might be a little bit more mindful of if you're licensed."
For those who are licensed, complying with safety regulations—and annual checks—can be time-consuming and expensive.
Andreas Besuch, who runs Chrysalis Child's Garden, a home-based program, says when he first started his business, he spent approximately five hours per day on administrative work, trying to comply with CYFD and City of Santa Fe regulations. Now, he has it down to approximately an hour per day.
Mitchell moved to a brand-new house under the assumption she would be able to increase her licensing level and accept two more children, only to discover that the Santa Fe Fire Department and CYFD have conflicting regulations. Santa Fe Fire Department told her that unless she wanted to install commercial-grade wiring and fire protection in the new place, she could only take five clients, versus the six she was expecting.
Mitchell's and Besuch's centers are two of only 10 Santa Fe day cares that have gone through that process, according to a list of day cares licensed by the city that it provided under a public records request. City Constituents Director Sevastian Gurule says the city doesn't have an enforcement officer who looks for businesses in the city that are operating illegally, but is more complaint-driven.
Besuch says it seems unfair that he's effectively being penalized with additional restrictions for trying to "comply with all state, local and federal laws," as instructed by CYFD.
"There are other people who don't go through licensing, they just have 12 children at the house no matter what," Besuch says. "I mean, if you want to be official, which is actually a good thing that you want to check us out—if there's something dangerous in the house, the house could have maybe gasoline in storage and that would be dangerous for the children. I understand that's a good thing…in another way it's kind of backfiring because now the city knows, 'Oh, they have a child care,' now they have inspected it so they place all their restrictions on it."
Gurule says CYFD relies on Santa Fe to do the fire inspection for these businesses. Knell says CYFD accepts a fire inspection from any city, county or state fire marshal.
Child care providers SFR contacted for this story that held state licensing or registration, but didn't appear on the city business list, didn't realize there were additional steps they were supposed to have taken.
Perusal of CYFD's annual inspection reports for registered and licensed centers and homes suggests providers must be meticulous to earn rarely awarded complete compliance. SFR found providers marked incompliant for failing to include soap in their first aid kids, or because a rug was "bunched up" on the day of the inspectors' visit. Rodriguez bought a water temperature gauge to appeal CYFD's determination that the water in her child bathroom was too hot.
"They come in and they put their hand under your water…and say you don't have the right temperature water," Rodriguez says. "Well, how do you know? Is your hand a thermometer?"
Those exacting standards seem to have earned New Mexico points with the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies, however, which praises New Mexico for addressing "nine of 10 safety requirements" in regulations for family child care homes.
Not all of the infractions noted against providers were trivial, however, and the easy access CYFD provides on its website to the past two years' results is a useful tool for parents to review before enrolling their children. PMS Head Start Flores del Sol was written up last December for allegedly failing to notify the state that one of the employees was arrested. Playschool of the Arts allegedly failed to notify the state of an incident requiring medical attention. In March 2009, CYFD followed up on a complaint made against La Petite Academy alleging staff walked away from a baby on a changing table. In May of last year, CYFD did an "Incident Investigation" of LPA after it allegedly failed to report a communicable disease.
Jessica Ladd at Coop Consulting tells SFR that although CYFD's requirements have their advantages, their strictness discourages would-be caregivers and likely causes many to run their business outside legal channels.
"We talked to people that wanted to get licensed, but they just got tired of all the red tape and 'You need to do this, you need to do that,' and they said, 'Forget it, I'll do something else.'" Ladd says.
The state's licensing process isn't limited to new safety provisions. CYFD, along with 18 other states' departments, has a one- to five-star child care quality evaluation system much like ones used to rate motels or restaurants. Higher stars correspond to excellence in factors that research suggests are integral to high-quality child care: teachers' level of education and the type of curriculum kids are exposed to.
CYFD has eight Training and Technical Assistance Program offices around the state that help providers navigate this star system, and check facilities and classrooms for compliance.
Many child care providers SFR contacted had even more grievances against the state's pedagogical reviews under its "Look for the STARS" rating system.
That system recently got stricter, though providers have until July 2012 to come into compliance.
The current one-star rating is being phased out, so that all licensed homes must meet the two-star requirements. Under the two-star rating, providers are required to have different "centers of interest" in the facility that children can choose from and access themselves. Hussey says she is a one-star center by choice because she wants to do more structured, preschool-like activities with her kids, rather than have them choose activities at random.
"I worked with the public schools, and I designed my program for the needs of the child entering public schools and what they lack," Hussey says. "Now, the state wants me to change all of this to get a two-star…it pretty much contradicts the governor's new wishes of making sure every child learns and they read, when in fact [under the star system] they just want more free time activity, and let the children pick and choose what they want to do during the course of the day. You have to have some form of structure."
Edna Nadel, who has run her home-based care in Edgewood for 15 years, says having all of the activities accessible to young children at any time is impractical.
"You have to set up all the stations in one room [for two-star licensing]," Nadel says. "I don't because some of the kids, if you are looking after infants and toddlers, you can't let them paint on their own! It's ridiculous!"
Rodriguez says she is going to start arguing more strenuously when she is "written up" for allegedly missing elements of her two-star licensing, now that CYFD is beginning to institute financial sanctions for incompliance.
"They come and they tell me stuff like, 'You don't have [the multicultural requirements] in here,' and I'm like, 'What do you mean I don't have multicultural in here? Look at my banners; they have multicultural children on there! Look at my art area—I have crayons that are skin-toned!'" Rodriguez says. "Instead of saying, 'Show me where you have this,' they tell me that I don't have it. It creates a bad rapport between the provider and the auditing agency."
Even Fernandez says the rationale behind some of the rules is less clear than for others.
"We have a pretty stringent regulation system comparatively to other states, which is a good thing, but there are some things in it that are like, 'OK…?'" Fernandez says. "But you just kind of do the best you can and work within that."
Each TTAP center used to include a Child Care Resource and Referral Service that parents could call for help finding the best child care in the area for their particular situation. Last year CCRR was consolidated into one Albuquerque office with an annual budget of $120,000. It maintains a website where parents can plug in their kids' ages, their home zip codes and other factors and receive a recommendation. CCRR also will give a more personalized recommendation, but says it doesn't recommend particular providers. In a year, CCRR receives an average of 170 calls for referrals—less than one every two days.
CYFD, in particular the Child Care Assistance Program, would be one beneficiary of an amendment to the state constitution that some legislators are trying to have put to a vote, Kayne says. Senate Joint Resolution 10 would allow voters to decide if the state should allocate a larger percentage of the state Land Grant Permanent Fund to early childhood education. Another bill would create a state early learning advisory council to improve the communication between various state entities whose work impacts young children's development.
At the newly built Amanacer Early Head Start site, Wickstrom knocks on the table she's sitting at, the wall behind her and the wood doorframe when she says she hopes her program gets more funding—or at least doesn't face cuts.
"Oh, God," she says with a laugh. "Get some more wood!" SFR