A single email sent in early March disrupted the lives of 116 Lincoln-area families. The Dimensions child care center at First-Plymouth Church will close for good on May 23, the email said.

The initial response to that announcement: panic. Parents scrambled for alternative care. The center’s 27 teachers feared for their jobs. 

“That instant shock was hardest,” said Dimensions Foundation CEO Tara Schroder. 

The center’s closure is notable because it marks the end of a child care center that has operated for 55 years. It’s also notable because the news is distressingly familiar. 

At least two other Lincoln-area centers have closed since November, according to Lincoln Littles, a network advocating for early childhood care and education. And nine Nebraska counties didn’t have a single licensed child care facility as of January, according to the nonprofit First Five Nebraska.

The current situation – with too few workers, too expensive tuition and a decreasing number of providers – amounts to what advocates and others call a crisis. 

And it has caught the attention of state leaders, including Gov. Jim Pillen and lawmakers of all political stripes. In the current legislative session, they’ve introduced at least a half-dozen bills intended to address the same problems that are shuttering the Dimensions center just a mile away.  

“If you can’t make it cheaper by cutting costs, you don’t have enough and it’s a critical service – all of this is pointing to that: This is actually something important for government to take on … to support it as an industry,” said Sen. Eliot Bostar, who has led legislative efforts.

It could take quite a bit of support. 

About $80.9 million in state funding went to the early childhood care and education system in 2021, according to the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska. Even with those dollars and other sources of money that year, the institute found it would take an additional $569.2 million to reach an ideally-funded system.

Momentum at the state level now has some sounding optimistic. But with the legislative calendar drawing down and the issue proving pervasive and persistent, it raises the question: Will the current efforts make a dent in Nebraska’s child care crisis?

Financially strapped 

Access to early childhood care is an issue across the country. In Nebraska, 74% of children under 6 have all available parents in the workforce, the 7th-highest percentage in the country, according to U.S. Census data compiled by First Five. 

Put simply, there’s not enough supply to meet the potential demand. The Bipartisan Policy Center found an 18.5% gap between the number of child care slots offered by licensed providers and the number of young Nebraska children with working parents. The gap widened to over 30% in the largely rural 3rd Congressional District.

That was in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing issues.

The number of child care centers has rebounded from a pandemic-fueled drop, but the number of home providers has declined consistently since 2019 – by over 19% in the metros and over 13% in Greater Nebraska, according to First Five. 

In-home providers are essential, especially in rural areas, said Lindsey Jarecki, a former early childhood teacher who helped start a nonprofit child care center in Boone County and now serves on its board. But many of those providers are older, or have closed after not making a living wage, she said.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nebraska child care workers made an average annual salary of $28,000 in 2022, or roughly $13.34 an hour – roughly half the average salary of all employed Nebraskans.  

It’s ironic, Jarecki said, that Boone Beginnings’ own teachers qualify for the assistance it provides to low-income families – and it can’t afford to pay them more.

While workers are struggling to earn a livable wage, parents are struggling to afford child care. Over 30% of parents with kids ages 5 and younger said they left the workforce because they couldn’t find affordable care, in a 2023 survey commissioned by the University of Nebraska Extension and We Care for Kids.

In Lancaster County, average annual child care costs in 2021 ranged from $6,901 to $12,389 depending on the child’s age and type of care, according to the Lincoln Vital Signs report

A worker shortage and the need to keep tuition reasonable led to the Dimensions Foundation’s difficult decision to close the center at First-Plymouth, Schroder said. Some of the staff and families will move to a second Dimensions location.

“For parents who haven’t left the workforce, the financial burden is beyond comparison to anything else,” Jarecki said. “Individuals are financially strapped … a joke that we tell in our circle is that when your youngest goes to kindergarten, that’s the biggest raise you’ll ever get.”

What legislators are trying

Nebraska’s child care crisis has motivated state lawmakers across party lines. 

There is strong momentum to truly “move the needle” in the next couple years, said Elizabeth Everett, deputy director of First Five, an advocacy organization behind many of the proposals. A bill sponsored by Bostar, a Democrat, could be “game-changing,” she said.

Requested by Pillen, a Republican, Bostar’s “Child Care Capacity Building and Workforce Act” would create grant programs to help with upstart costs for new child care providers and establish regional hubs that handle administrative tasks for “micro-centers” that care for up to 12 children.

The bill, which passed unanimously out of committee, was amended this week into a different bill that would change a law related to inland port districts. It passed the first of three rounds of debate.

Just last year Bostar introduced and got passed a slate of new or expanded tax credits for businesses that invest in child care, families, providers and workers. The law could cost the state up to $34.2 million in revenue in just the 2024-25 biennium, according to an estimate. That investment has become a “huge recruitment tool” for centers, Everett said.

Another Bostar bill this year would nix some of the state’s “burdensome” regulations on child care providers. It has the backing of Speaker John Arch, a Republican from La Vista, and passed first-round debate.

A bill introduced and prioritized this year by Sen. John Fredrickson, an Omaha Democrat, targets the state’s child care subsidy program, which covers some child care costs for parents who meet certain criteria.

Child care and preschool workers would qualify for the subsidy under Fredrickson’s bill. It was inspired by similar action in Kentucky in 2022.

The bill may have hit a snag due to its potential $10 million cost, Fredrickson told the Flatwater Free Press.

The governor’s goals for property tax relief, while admirable, have made new investments a difficult sell, he said. He hopes to pass some version of this policy with or without the price tag.

Sen. Wendy DeBoer, an Omaha Democrat, has a bill she hopes will bring the state’s subsidy rate more in-line with providers’ costs. The Legislature gave it first-round approval on March 5. An amendment from Lincoln Democrat Sen. Anna Wishart added a grant program to help nursing homes add child care to their buildings.

Teresa Ibach, a Republican from Sumner, has a stalled bill that would, if tacked onto another bill, direct $2 million to a fund to supplement salaries for child care and early education providers. 

Incremental change vs. seismic shift

Dimensions Foundation CEO Schroder, on the cusp of closing the Lincoln child care center, sees a need for something bigger than grants, tax breaks and subsidy boosts – as helpful as those are. Both she and Boone Beginnings’ Jarecki would like to see the state provide an ongoing base of funding for operations. 

The public appears to agree, at least hypothetically: 84% surveyed in 2023 said that Nebraska ought to support child care and early learning like it does K-12 and higher education.

“I personally hate that it has come to a program of 55 years having to close,” Schroder said. “But if that's what it would take for the crisis to be seen and known and for something to be done to help … then that will be the silver lining. We really need the Legislature to see this crisis and to do something about it.”

As a whole, funding for early childhood care and education hasn’t kept up with the growing economy, according to Cathey Huddleston-Casas at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute. The gap to an ideally-funded system supported by federal, state and private money has widened, according to research by Huddleston-Casas.

It’s not that Nebraskans don’t care or recognize that it’s important, she said, it’s that closing the gap is a “different animal.”

“This historically has been a state that has put a lot of effort and resources toward early childhood,” she said. “Despite those efforts and resources, the gap is not closing.” 

It’s unclear exactly what it will take to solve a crisis that she likened to a Rubik’s Cube: Do your best to fix one side, and it’ll shift another side of the complicated, interconnected system.

“It’s not going to be exactly what we want it to be, as we’re trying to shift so that we’re using our public dollars to their best capacity,” Huddleston-Casas said. “There isn’t going to be a perfect fix or a silver bullet, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”

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