Case Study: Care in Illinois

Photo: Long Story Short Media

No Longer the Top of the Pack

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.

The Budget Crisis, Explained

Budget crises aren’t new to Illinois, which has faced a long-time structural deficit. In other words, for years, the state of Illinois has taken in less money than it spends. As a result, in 2011, lawmakers passed a temporary income tax increase to help the state pay off a backlog of unpaid bills. When the tax increase ended, a budget battle ensued over which programs to cut, and by how much.

Governor Bruce Rauner, a Republican, was elected in 2014 with a mandate to balance the budget, looked to cutting spending on social services like child care subsidies and safety net programs to help struggling families, pitting himself against advocates of social services.

In 2015, the state of Illinois changed child care requirements, dramatically reducing the number of families who could be eligible for subsidies. Eligibility requirements became more stringent; parents enrolled in school were no longer eligible for child care assistance, and income limits were reduced from 185 percent to 53 percent of the federal poverty line. As a result, 90 percent of those formerly eligible became ineligible. The governor eventually raised the income limit to 162 percent of the federal poverty line in November 2015. But thousands of children remained without access to the subsidy program. Estimates range from 15,000 to 55,000 children. According to the OUNCE of Prevention Fund, a Chicago-based funder and operator of birth-to-five programs, 125,545 children received child care subsidies in 2015, down about 22 percent from the average 160,000 children receiving subsidies in previous years.

The state increased the amount of money a family must pay out of pocket, or co-pays, depending on income and family size. And while state payments were delayed for child care, the budget covering Illinois Department of Human Services and other social services programs, like home visiting,  paid out at $0.65 on the dollar

All of which left care providers like LeFlore without the money they needed to provide care for the families who need it.

Meet Stephanie & Gianna

The house is busy, set on a tree-lined street just off the highway in Justice, Illinois. Three-year-old Gianna sips chocolate milk as her mother, Stephanie Dziedzic, brushes her curly brown hair. A fish tank gurgles in the background and competes with the noise of an overly friendly cat who’s making itself known by purring and nudging idle hands. Dziedzic expertly ties Gianna’s curls into a poofy ponytail before another day at Little People Montessori. Now fully dressed in a flowery shirt, pink pants, and a yellow scrunchy, Gianna takes Dziedzic’s hand and makes her way to the kitchen to finish those last bites of Fruit Loops.

Dziedzic’s fiancé is sleeping off a night shift, so she and her mom arrange Gianna’s pick up later in the day. It’s Thursday and Dziedzic is going to be working late as a hair stylist at Sport Clips in downtown La Grange, Illinois, 15 miles away. In 2015, the whole family—seven people total—moved in together in Justice, Illinois, to cover the cost of rent and child care: Dziedzic, her mother and sister, and Gianna, and her fiancé Brandon, and his two children Serena and Junior. Dziedzic’s mother has also recently taken unpaid leave after surgery, but is driving for Uber to help make rent. On a day like Thursday, when Dziedzic works odd hours, Gianna’s grandmother watches her after school. Sometimes Dziedzic works two nights per week, sometimes weekends. It’s unpredictable.

Having finished breakfast, Gianna slips on her shoes and smiles as they make their way out to the large truck sitting out front, finally off to school.

Upsetting a Fragile Balance

Gianna was born shortly after Dziedzic graduated from cosmetology school. Until Gianna was one-and-a-half, Dziedzic and Gianna lived with Dziedzic’s mother and Dziedzic stayed home full-time. Dziedzic wanted to stay home with her daughter, but eventually had to go back to work to cover the costs of raising Gianna. Little People helped her through the process of applying for a child care subsidy so she could do so.

“I can go to work with my mind at ease. I know Gianna is safe and learning by leaps and bounds.”

“I’m trying to work towards not being on assistance,” Dziedzic says emphatically, “but [I] need all the help I can get.” Until her recent engagement, Dziedzic was a single parent making minimum wage and paying off student loans. Yet even with the help of her fiancé, moving in with her mother was the only way they could cover the cost of rent and child care. Today, Dziedzic works at Sport Clips and is paid minimum wage; she wouldn't be able to work and pay household bills without the state child care assistance. Dziedzic recounts how her entire paycheck goes to the bills, mostly rent: “Me and my fiancé split 1,100 dollars just for the rent... he pays the water bill, I pay the cable bill, and I also have to pay my car insurance and my car note.” What little is left—tips—she saves “for the daycare, gas, food, and trying to do something fun with the kids in the summer.” She pays $79 per month to send Gianna to the Little People Montessori Academy. Yet when asked if Little People is worth the cost, she responds: “I can go to work with my mind at ease. I know Gianna is safe and learning by leaps and bounds.” And, indeed, Gianna spends her days safely and happily with LeFlore and her best friend Farrah. After Gianna arrives at school, they sit together by the window, taking Barbie dolls out of a basket to play.

Dziedzic is terrified the budget crisis will upset the fragile balance she and her family have created to make ends meet. Every six months, recipients of child care assistance have to “re-determine,” or re-apply. She had a scare a couple months ago, when state officials said she didn't qualify anymore. But they later determined that was due to a glitch.

The crisis has already taken a toll. Dziedzic was one of many low-wage parents now facing  increased parent co-pays: “It’s a shocker… they told me I have to pay $270 within the next month, and I really don’t have that extra money at this point. It used to be $79 dollars a month.” So Dziedzic is stuck: If she picks up more shifts and earns more, she’ll make too much money and no longer qualify for the subsidy. And if she earns less, with the higher co-pay, she won’t be able to pay her bills.   

Erie House

Like LeFlore, other child care providers have continued their mission to serve the neediest families at great personal cost throughout the budget crisis. Catalina Cordero is a parent volunteer who recently moved back to Chicago. Having suffered a leg injury, Cordero lost her job and child care, which she desperately needed to find a new job. In many states, including Illinois, only working parents may apply for child care assistance. Even though she’s job hunting, Cordero doesn’t qualify. In Chicago, Erie House is trying to fill in the gaps, providing for child care and other social services for Cordero out-of-pocket.

Walking into Erie House, artwork lines the walls, and just outside, an herb and vegetable garden helps  children learn about plants. The governing board of directors has taken out a line of credit for $1.5 million and applied for philanthropic dollars to cover the shortfall, but it’s an open question—how much longer can they go on, if state payments continue to be delayed. Because so many fewer children qualify for subsidies due to the budget crisis, parents unable to afford higher quality, licensed care either stop working or seek cheaper, unregulated care from family, friends or neighbors, it took Erie three-quarters of the school year to fill their classrooms. According to Erie’s director of marketing and communications, Brian Paff: “Our preschool program enrollment is down 19 children, resulting in a total loss between $184,984 - $154,185, depending on the ages of the enrolled children.” In other words, it took Erie almost a full year to fill their classrooms, and even at year end, enrollment was down by 11 percent. If the state doesn’t pass a budget, Erie may have to close classrooms, provide fewer services, and lay off staff in the coming years.

“We’ve been fortunate to stay afloat pairing cuts with some new revenue,” says Paff. Other providers have tried to follow Erie House’s example by taking out lines of credit, loans, soliciting for more private donations, and downsizing so they can continue to provide services to needy children regardless of whether and when the state of Illinois pays. Those other providers have folded. In January, the largest provider of social services, Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, reduced its workforce by 43 percent, eliminating more than 750 positions. In a typical  year, Catholic Charities operates at a loss, underwriting their ​six ​​centers $2.4 million​ for​ basic operations management and staffing: the Head Start director, nutritionist, facility costs, teacher pay, and other costs. Catholic Charities closed one center in June 2016. According to Laura Rios, vice president​ of Child, Youth & Families for Catholic Charities, the consequences for those families without child care are dire: “When working parents don’t have childcare, they’re​ often ​left ​with an older sibling or home alone in unsafe neighborhoods.​”

During the 2015-2016 school year, ​Catholic Charities managed six child development centers in Chicago for 1,016 children ages 0-5 and 295 children ages 6-12. All six centers are NAEYC accredited and gold-rated, the highest quality standards possible.​​ When speaking about the effect of the budget crisis, Rios commented:​ “You can reduce the number of classrooms, but there is a cost to running centers​ ​attentive to quality care, safety, and compliance. It’s not a simple issue of opening and closing classrooms.​” Judith Walker-Kendrick, director of the Chicago Coalition of Site-Administered Child Care Programs, provider of technical assistance to early learning agencies funded by the city of Chicago, confirmed that the number of child care providers is decreasing: “The number of agencies has shrunk from 81 to 34 in great part because of the budget crisis.”

“When working parents don’t have childcare, [children are] often ​left ​with an older sibling or home alone in unsafe neighborhoods.”

In order to provide quality care, agencies have tried, like LeFlore,  to braid funding, i.e. the three-legged stool. But this created problems of its own. According to Walker-Kendrick, braiding makes funding less, not more, stable: “The three-stool premise assumes everyone—federal, state and local governments—is on the same page. If that isn’t the case—as it is in Illinois—the stool will always collapse.” In addition, because each of the funding-prongs has its own requirements, braiding complicates the administration of early learning programs. Some 60 providers, including Metropolitan Family Services and the Ounce of Prevention Fund, are suing the state for lack of payment, which advocates say has decimated the painstakingly constructed early care and learning infrastructure, primarily for children from lower-income families, for years to come.

Forced to Choose between Quantity and Quality

More than a year after the budget crisis began, the state was still at a stand-still. In July of 2016, Illinois finally passed a temporary budget, but it is not enough to cover the losses child care providers and families have suffered, the damage done to the early learning infrastructure, or to provide long-term security and relief that this won’t happen again. Walker-Kendrick confirmed agencies are forced to choose between availability or quality, if not closing fully: “There isn’t enough funding for everyone, so you have to make choices. Are you going to reach everybody or are you going to reach a few with quality? At some point you have to make a choice between quantity and quality,” she said.

The budget for care isn’t just insufficient, it’s also unstable. Funding for early learning (and other relevant human services) needs a predictable baseline of funding, advocates said. “We also need to improve the process of accessing care for both parents and providers,” said Walker-Kendrick.

Though early learning quality has been a focus of Governor Rauner’s administration, the lack of funding limits child care providers’ ability to implement and maintain quality measures.

Quality care—that which is essential for our littlest learners, that which Illinois has failed to provide or value, and LeFlore and so many others like her have given their own peace of mind and financial stability to offer—is only possible if you train teachers, pay them a living wage, and create a healthy working environment. Quality reforms only go so far if there is no way to sustain them. And they cannot be sustained if they are not prioritized and supported by a state that cares about its citizens.

These problems are bigger than LeFlore, and the solution shouldn’t be hers alone. She needs help. Many of the families she serves needs help. She just wishes the state of Illinois would.

Back in the dingy shopping mall, the nail salon next door now occupies a classroom LeFlore had to close and rent out. Though the situation may be more dire now, LeFlore emphasizes that this financial uncertainty is not new. Over the years, LeFlore has learned “how to spread the money out”—she negotiated with her landlord to pay in installments, and takes out loans so that in months like July—when the state sent subsidy payments nearly a month late—she can make payroll. As LeFlore closes for the day, kids trickling out with their parents, she wonders how she's going to repay that loan and worries about the security of her financial future. These problems are bigger than LeFlore, and the solution shouldn’t be hers alone. She needs help. Many of the families she serves needs help. She just wishes the state of Illinois would.