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.