‘Micro-centers’ could build supply of child care in Nebraska


The shortage of child care, particularly in Nebraska’s rural areas and under-resourced communities, is well documented. But what is less well known is that the problem is exacerbated by scale. Child care settings that enroll 12 or fewer children, licensed as Family Child Care homes, have experienced a steady decrease in Nebraska. Over the past five years, family child care homes have decreased by 13.2% in Greater Nebraska and 19.4% in metro areas.

A dramatic drop has also been seen nationally in small, licensed child care centers. The number of child care centers that enrolled fewer than 25 children decreased by 28.5% between 2012 and 2019.

Why such a dramatic drop in small sites? Because the job is overwhelming and undercompensated. Running a successful child care business is extremely challenging – regardless of program size. To be successful, a program must be fully enrolled, collect all tuition and fees and assure they are sufficient to cover the costs of delivering care. But larger sites typically have administrative staff to help with these tasks. This is not the case in small sites. Typically, the owner or operator of a small site must wear myriad hats, including director, teacher, social worker, bookkeeper, bill collector, licensing and regulatory specialist, records manager and more. It is not surprising that many of these individuals just burn out and close their businesses.

Opportunities Exchange, a national organization focused on transforming the business of child care, believes that an alternative approach is possible. Crafting policy and finance specifically designed to nurture small sites—or micro-centers—can be the  key to building child care supply in a post-pandemic economy. But Nebraska, like many states, does not have a strategy for intentionally growing this type of program.

New care model for Nebraska A micro-center strategy would create a new kind of child care model in Nebraska with networks of care programs linked by hubs that provide back-office support to streamline program operations, provide pedagogical and curriculum support and offer career advancement opportunities for teachers.

What is a micro-center?
A micro-center is a small child care program typically serving 30 or fewer children. It is a hybrid approach that includes elements of Family Child Care (up to 12 children, most often in a residential setting, with regulatory standards that are designed for a small group of children and one or two caregivers) and a Child Care Center (which can serve several hundred children in multiple classrooms under the leadership of a site director and administrative team). In Nebraska, essentially the same licensing rules apply regardless of whether a center serves 13 or 200 children. Yet from an administrative and fiscal capacity, these programs are vastly different.

Best practice to help establish and ensure success of micro-centers is to encourage micro-center networks, with multiple one-classroom sites in various locations that are linked by a back-office hub that provides administrative and staff support. A network director employed by the hub supervises, coaches and leads instructional leadership of classroom teachers and oversees curriculum, child assessment, parent engagement and other leadership tasks. All administrative services, like enrollment, billing, licensing and more are provided by hub staff. Care sites use child care management software for automated support for most administrative tasks, which is cost effective. Micro-center teachers typically are employed by the hub with employee benefits, internal career ladder and other professional supports.

Locations of micro-centers
Micro-centers may be located in schools, hospitals, office buildings, community centers, shopping malls or any location with space that can be outfitted as a child care classroom. Ideally, micro-center networks are partnerships between the hub agency, and employer or a community-based host.

Lessons from other states
Some states have created specific licensing categories for small child care programs in non-residential settings, including Oregon, Indiana and Massachusetts, among others that are exploring policy to encourage micro-centers. Tennessee recently launched a start-up program to support growth of micro-center networks. Like Nebraska, it allows programs that serve 16 or fewer children to operate in non-residential settings and secure a license under the Group Family Child Care rule.

As Nebraska strives to meet the need for affordable child care, micro-centers are a promising alternative to traditional child care models while offering the potential to deliver quality care at scale. A growing number of employers are interested in micro-centers and may have space that could be adapted for child care. Let’s seize this opportunity and establish a new model of care in Nebraska.

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