Empty buildings are scattered between neighborhoods of post-war era single-family homes in Lyons, Illinois. In a nondescript shopping center, tucked between a laundromat and nail salon, sits Little People Montessori Academy. Only from the large, green strollers parked outside can one tell there might be learning taking place indoors.
Regina LeFlore, the owner and director of the Little People Montessori Academy, has worked in child care for 25 years. One sunny day, her toddlers file out for a field trip to the nearby Riverside Park and Trail. Though a private child care provider, LeFlore believes in offering high-quality education to all. Little People Montessori Academy is a licensed child care center and American Montessori Society member in the process of being rated by Illinois’ ExceleRate quality rating system. Regina is a certified Montessori Teacher working towards a Bachelor’s Degree in Behavioral Applied Sciences. Care at Little People can range from $1,466 per month for the infants to $990 for the 3-to-5 year-olds.
To be able to open her doors to children of families from all incomes, yet be able to cover the cost of middle and low-income students unable to pay full tuition, LeFlore, like many other providers, uses a “three-legged stool” of braided funding: a combination of state child care subsidy dollars, Illinois pre-K dollars, and federal Head Start dollars. That approach ensures her Montessori-certified teachers are paid a living wage. If receiving support, parents pay the difference between tuition and the braided funding. In recent years, however, LeFlore’s ability to take on all students has been hampered by a growing and intensifying budget crisis in Illinois. A massive deficit meant that the state had $8 billion dollars in unpaid bills. As a result, the state radically cut the number of students who could qualify for child care subsidies, and state payments for those remaining students were delayed.
The move threw an already struggling child care system into crisis. In the Care Index, Illinois was rated in the third quartile, on the lower end of the scale, for the trade-offs it makes between cost, quality and availability. Child care is expensive. The average cost of care for one child in a family home or center, $10,228 a year, is 94 percent of the state’s median rent. That care represents 18 percent of the state’s median household income, and, for a family with a single minimum wage earner, 60 percent. Though quality is difficult to measure, only 21 percent of the state’s child care establishments are accredited.
Though Illinois was once a national leader in early education, the first to adopt state-funded preschool for three and four-year-olds and the first to mandate bilingual education in public preschool programs, “we are no longer at the top of the pack. The money is not there and programs are closing,” said Sara Slaughter, executive director of the W. Clement & Jessie V. Stone Foundation, a Chicago-based organization that supports initiatives to improve early childhood education and development. The damage done from the budget crisis is about more than just the money, she added. “It chips away at a decade-long policy process to improve children’s early education and opportunity in life.”
At Little People Montessori Academy, when state subsidy funds dried up, LeFlore decided, rather than refuse to teach students from financially struggling backgrounds whose subsidy payments were stopped or delayed, she’d subsidize the students herself. “Every day, I pay $160 dollars on a high-interest loan, since poor credit disqualified me from other options,” says LeFlore. She did this because she knew that she is not the only one who looks to the state for help: so do low-income parents across Illinois and the country who badly need someone to care for their children so they can work. LeFlore is putting her own financial stability at risk for the sake of her school and the children there, taking on more private-paying students and the loan to cover delayed payments. She used to offer 50-50 slots: 50 percent of parents paid in-full out-of-pocket, and 50 percent paid through a combination of personal income and support from state and federal funds. Yet now she now has to seek out more tuition-paying parents since the state funding has been so unreliable.
LeFlore is putting her own financial stability at risk for the sake of her school and the children there, taking on more private-paying students and the loan to cover delayed payments.
“It’s been tough, but I didn’t want to kick any students out,” says LeFlore. “I’ve worked with families in the program to find a way to stay.” Out of necessity, now the ratio is 65 percent private to 35 percent public.