Silvia Anderson and her husband, Johnathon Anderson, opened Nature’s Lab school in 2018 on their half-acre property in Carmichael. (Photo by Fred Greaves)

Child Care Crisis

The region’s shortage is at critical levels, and part of the problem is not enough space. Capital Region leaders are looking for ways to get more facilities up and running.

Back Longreads Apr 13, 2020 By Steven Yoder

Editor's note: This story was reported and written for Comstock's April print edition, before California's lockdown due to the coronavirus. Click here for the latest information regarding child care in California.

This story is part of our April 2020 issue. To find the issue on newsstands, click here.

If you had to pick someone to run a child care center, you wouldn’t do better than Silvia Anderson. She has a master’s degree in child development and a bucket of certifications as a trainer of preschool teachers. She spent seven years teaching infants, toddlers and preschoolers. She managed Sacramento County’s quality-review system for early learning and care providers. She mentors early learning teachers and administrators statewide.  

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Three years ago, she was working for the Sacramento County Office of Education and took maternity leave to have her son, planning to return after six months. But she couldn’t find the right child care arrangement and ended up staying home with him for a year.

She’d dreamed of opening her own care program that would emphasize outdoor play, so in December 2018, she and her husband, Johnathon Anderson, opened Nature’s Lab school. It’s a bilingual program with three teachers that has children learning mostly outdoors on the Andersons’ half-acre of property in Carmichael through a curriculum that emphasizes science, technology, engineering, art and math. They received a state license to serve up to 12 children ages 1-5 as a family child care home, and the program filled up immediately. One year in, they have an 80-child waiting list. Parents call regularly to check whether anyone has left and opened a space.

So in June 2019, Anderson decided to open a full child care center that would allow her to serve more children, which she had planned to have up and running by January. (Full child care centers, unlike family child care homes, have no set limit on the number of children they can serve.) Her first idea was to convert their 2,000-square-foot house, with her and her family moving out. But they’re in residential zoning, so she’d need special permission to run a business from home, obtained through a conditional use permit. The permit application would have cost $12,000, she says. In an initial assessment, the county spelled out changes that would be needed: building a sidewalk in front of the house, paving a road that ran along on the side, widening the street in front, building parking spaces and more. “It quickly added up to almost $2 million, which absolutely made no sense in my book,” Anderson says.

That was impossible, so she next looked at buildings zoned as commercial. But most had no green space — a nonstarter for a program focused outdoors — and would require expensive retrofits.

So she found a church in Carmichael to rent. The church once ran a child care program and will require a fraction of the upgrades that her home would — about $100,000 versus$2 million. Unfortunately, it’s also in an area zoned residential, and the church began its child care center before conditional use permits were required. That means paying the permit fee and spending at least six months on the application review and any required upgrades. 

At the end of all that, the permit could get rejected if, for example, they run into opposition from neighbors. “Until we have it, we don’t have it,” says Anderson. She’s worked with early care and education programs for 19 years, but the challenges of opening her own have been “so much more than I expected,” she says. “It’s been quite a trip too, and it’s been really, really frustrating. … We’re such a high-quality program that you’d think (the county would) want it.” 

(The challenges of opening a child care center have been) so much more than I expected. It’s been quite a trip too, and it’s been really, really frustrating.

SILVIA ANDERSON FOUNDER, NATURE’S LAB

 As of 2017, Sacramento County had enough licensed child care slots to accommodate little more than a quarter of children with working parents, according to data from nonprofit Child Action. (Children with working parents are defined as having either a single parent who works or two parents who both work.) The shortage is worst for infants and toddlers: Most infant programs run by child care centers have no vacancies. Infant programs have higher staffing requirements than those serving kids ages 3-5, and there are fewer than 3,000 slots for infants countywide but almost 23,000 for those ages 3-5. 

The problems are similar in jurisdictions across the region. But one is trying to fix that. With the urgent need to get more child care facilities built, retrofitted or expanded, Sacramento city leaders are in the early stages of building child care into the city’s planning and looking at how to streamline approval.

Families Are ‘Taping Together’ Alternatives

The Great Recession cut a path of destruction through the region’s child care market. Licensed centers went under, home-based providers lost their houses and providers moved away, says Child Action administrative analyst Kelli Newman. Between 2010 and 2014, Sacramento County lost about 6,000 licensed child care slots for children up to age 5, according to data from the First 5 Sacramento Commission, a county-appointed funding agency. And most of those spots haven’t come back. 

The average monthly cost of infant care in the county runs almost $1,400 and for preschoolers almost $900, according to a January 2018 report by the Learning Policy Institute. The situation is equally bad in surrounding counties: Placer and Yolo have enough child care slots to meet 35 percent and 28 percent, respectively, of demand from working families, according to 2017 data from the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health. In Sutter County, it’s 20 percent and in Yuba 15.

Child Action’s Julie Smith says families are “taping together” alternatives, like leaving kids with grandparents. The agency, which offers child care referral services to parents, had an average of about 2,200 children on its waiting list during 2018 and 2019. 

Sacramento City Councilman Eric Guerra has seen the effects as both a child and a parent. His father was a farmworker and had to be in the fields early. His mother worked the night shift at a cannery. So his father would drop him at school at 6 a.m., two hours before class, because he had nowhere else to take him.

That we happened to luck out was the thing that got me. Luck shouldn’t have to be a factor so you can find child care and continue to work.

ERIC GUERRA SACRAMENTO CITY COUNCILMAN

Guerra was elected to the city council in 2015, and 18 months later, he and his wife were excited to find out she was pregnant. “Then she says, ‘I’ve been talking to other parents about getting onto these lists,’” says Guerra. “‘What lists?’” he wanted to know. He found out when he started calling around for child care: waits from 18 months to two years, at an average monthly cost of $1,500. Their son Javier was born in November 2017, and for the first four months, Guerra took him to meetings, including Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce’s Capitol-to-Capitol delegation to Washington, D.C. The Guerras got kudos for stretching gender norms on dads taking kids to work. In reality, they had no choice.

In spring 2018, he was meeting with a developer who had a child care tenant. The program’s director told him a family had just moved, so a spot had opened. “That we happened to luck out was the thing that got me,” says Guerra. “Luck shouldn’t have to be a factor so you can find child care and continue to work.” 

Help on the Way?

Guerra is spearheading an effort to change that. In October 2018, he convened a public hearing on the child care shortage and put together a work group. The group developed a strategic plan, and one of its proposals is to streamline the permitting process for providers who want to open or expand. Practically, that means city staff are working on regulatory changes that would exempt child care providers who want to expand or open a new center in certain zones from going through the conditional use permit process, Guerra says. As of February, city staff were taking that recommendation, part of a proposed child care ordinance, to the city’s Planning and Design Commission. If approved, it will come before the city council, he says. 

That could address a huge barrier. Conditional use permits require coming up with thousands in up-front money, as in Anderson’s case. But the applicant has no control over neighborhood opposition, says Pamela Van Parys of Sacramento County-based Van Parys Child Care Consulting, who helps child care providers navigate building and expansion rules. Neighbors often conflate child care centers with elementary schools, with kids getting out at the same time, lots of traffic, Cheetos bags thrown on lawns. That’s wrong, says Van Parys: There’s not a lot of concentrated foot or vehicle traffic since parents come and go throughout the day, and they park and come inside to sign their children out. The possibility of a permit getting rejected is a huge financial risk — one of her recent clients paid $18,000 in application fees.

Guerra also wants to see changes that incentivize developers to build child care facilities. To that end, the new child care ordinance would encourage those planning major employment centers and multifamily projects to incorporate child care into their building plans. It wouldn’t be a requirement, but city planners would be empowered to ask about it as part of approval, he says.  

West Sacramento already has something stronger on the books. In 1993, the city did a needs assessment, and the next year began assessing a child care impact fee on developers: $81-$645 per residential unit or $193-$645 per thousand square feet of commercial space. The money goes toward building or improving child care facilities, including grants to providers who offer child care out of homes, says Justine Jimenez, business manager for the city’s early learning programs. The city used that funding stream to build a child care and preschool into its community center, finished in 2011. Jimenez says it’s tough to measure how much that policy has moved the needle on access, but “it’s definitely increased the number of family child care homes” —  critical since home-based providers more often offer care for infants and toddlers, for whom the need is greatest, she says.

For Sacramento, child care is showing up in the city’s long-term strategic thinking. Guerra says child care is now included as a priority in the 2040 update to the city’s general plan. That’s important because “putting something in the general plan gives direction to the staff that this is a priority,” he says.  

“I think the activities in the City of Sacramento are incredibly promising,” says Donna Sneeringer, Sacramento-based director of government relations for the Child Care Resource Center and a member of the First 5 Sacramento Commission. “With my commissioner hat on, I’d say we are hopeful of having the same conversation with the other cities and, obviously, the county.”

Nature’s Lab, operated by Silvia Anderson, emphasizes science, technology, engineering, art and math.

The Sacramento County Child Care and Development Strategic Plan 2017-2022 includes two goals — increasing access and availability — that might guide efforts to make it easier to expand or build facilities. Linnea Hathaway is project specialist for the county’s Local Child Care and Development Planning Council, which put together the plan. She says the council “supports greater collaboration among the agencies and prospective providers to streamline the process and reduce the start-up fiscal barriers to opening additional licensed centers and homes.” But asked about specific measures the council is launching to incentivize child care facilities development, she says the council isn’t funded to take on that task.  

Some help is coming from the state. In September 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 234, which bars municipalities from restricting homes from being used to run larger home-based child care businesses for up to 14 children. Under the law, jurisdictions can no longer create special zoning requirements for those providers — meaning they won’t have to get conditional use permits. Still, that won’t help Anderson, whose new center, if it happens, won’t be home-based. 

More state money for facilities is also coming. The Newsom administration’s 2019 budget puts aside $263 million over four years for grants to child care and preschool providers, with 95 percent of the money going to facilities expansion and the rest to renovation and repairs. 

All who advocate for policies to boost the number of providers agree on this: Health, safety and quality rules shouldn’t be relaxed to increase their number. Even Anderson, for all she’s been through, is conflicted about growing the pool too fast. When she was shopping for space, she contacted other programs and found many she judged to be low quality because they were run by investors who she thought had gotten in mostly for the money.

“I’ve had a whole battle with myself because part of me says let’s make the process easier and cheaper,” she says. “But if a business becomes easier to be launched, then will we have more bad-quality programs? And so I’m in a moment of no answer.” 

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