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Stacey Carpenter reads “Bear’s New Friend” to children on Sept. 23, 2022, at her in-home daycare in Greeley. Carpenter has been a home-based child care provider since 2004. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

GREELEY — Stacey Carpenter is still wavering over whether her home-based day care will accept children as part of Colorado’s expanded preschool program next fall, batting around questions about how much money the state will reimburse her, what curriculum providers like her will be required to use and how much time it will absorb as she juggles caring for infants, toddlers and one 3-year-old.

“Is the demand of universal pre-K going to allow me to still care for my infants and toddlers?” wonders Carpenter, who cares for seven children at Foundations Family Childcare, her business in her Greeley home.

But she also worries about the financial toll she could face if she opts out of the state’s expanded preschool program. Four of the kids in her care are age 2 and if she stays on the sidelines of the state’s program when they’re old enough to enroll in it, she’ll likely lose them to other preschool settings — and with them much of the revenue that keeps her afloat.

“It would probably decimate (my bottom line),” said Carpenter, 45, who has been a licensed home-based child care provider since 2004.

As Colorado prepares to launch its universal preschool program — which will offer at least 10 hours of free preschool a week — during the next school year, some early childhood advocates and child care providers fear it will unintentionally hurt infant and toddler care. 

Their concerns zero in on providers like Carpenter whose businesses survive by catering to a range of children in their earliest years because of the high costs associated with looking after infants and toddlers. At the root of their concerns are funding and workforce challenges — stubborn consequences of a broken business model, said Melissa Mares, director of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Without enough public funding, she said, child care providers are forced to subsidize the cost of care because the amounts that families can afford don’t cover educator pay, training courses, facilities, food and other necessities.

Stacey Carpenter plays with children on Sept. 23, 2022, at her in-home daycare in Greeley. Carpenter has been a home-based child care provider since 2004 and is enrolled at Aims Community College for an associate’s degree in early childhood care. She charges $225 per child per week regardless of their age and is licensed to care for nine children at once. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“Child care is a business that exists on the margin,” Mares said. “It’s very, very hard to keep your doors open, and preschoolers are less costly to care for than infants and toddlers, and so oftentimes providers’ business model includes caring for both age groups as a way to make ends meet.”

“And so if preschool is free in other places now or is cheaper and families start to pull their kids from their community-based setting and those providers can’t participate in universal preschool or don’t want to for any reason,” Mares said, “(it) could be a pretty significant financial hit to them in a way that would make it much harder for them to stay open to continue to serve infants and toddlers.”

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Mares also raises concerns about whether the state will have enough professionals to take care of infants and toddlers, with the possibility that early childhood educators who have devoted their careers to infants and toddlers could migrate to preschools where they can make more money.

Carpenter is a one-person operation, where she’s created her own classroom. Stuffed animals line a shelf above a pint-sized kitchen. Costumes hang from a tiny closet next to bins of toys, including baby dolls and old cellphones that kids use to mimic calls. In the back corner of the room there is a reading nook, where Carpenter will gather her kids with pillows and blankets for story time, with wall art depicting the alphabet, days of the week and months of the year hanging above them.

She loves snuggling babies, hugging her students and watching them discover their surroundings and capabilities.

“I get to see all the firsts, and it’s a really rewarding feeling,” Carpenter said.

Maverick, 2, and Presley, 3, play on Sept. 23, 2022, at Stacey Carpenter’s in-home daycare in Greeley. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

It’s equally stressful, as she wades through the day-to-day responsibilities of supervising play, leading art projects, helping her kids learn math and science and making lunch and as she tries to plan for her future. It’s not yet clear how much providers who participate in Colorado’s preschool program will receive as the state has yet to determine its rates. Carpenter worries the amount could be lower than what she would collect through private tuition.

Carpenter, who is enrolled at Aims Community College where she is working toward an associate’s degree in early childhood, charges $225 per child per week, regardless of their age, and is paid privately by families. She is licensed to care for two infants. If she takes a pass on the state’s expanded preschool program and loses some of her students to other providers, she said she’ll have to find 2- or 3-year-olds to fill their spots, which could be a challenge depending on what demand for care looks like in a few years.

Carpenter also worries about the bigger picture of child care for infants, toddlers and preschoolers in Weld County, where she said capacity is already strained.

“Are there going to be enough licensed spots for the 4-year-olds, and if not, where are they going to get those spots from?” she asked.

Some child care providers could try to serve more preschoolers since the state-approved ratios for preschoolers are larger than for infants and toddlers, enabling them to earn more income, Carpenter said. That means they would have to scale back on the number of infants and toddlers in their care, leaving Carpenter wondering where those kids would go.

Adding to her worries about the future of early childhood care and education is the burnout rippling across the ranks of providers, primarily for those responsible for infants and toddlers. She questions how sustainable the industry is, particularly as some of the kids showing up to her classroom now, after more than two years of a pandemic, need more help with skills like speech.

One day last week, she changed 14 dirty diapers. By early Thursday afternoon, she was drained.

“I’m exhausted today,” Carpenter said, “and it is just nap time.”

Finding a balance in the focus on infants, toddlers and preschoolers

As the Colorado Department of Early Childhood oversees the rollout of expanded preschool next fall, it is equally focused on the well-being of infants and toddlers, executive director Lisa Roy said. 

“Ultimately, we’re trying to do this in a balanced way,” Roy told The Colorado Sun. “So we don’t want to do a pendulum swing where everyone’s rushing to do one over the other. We want a community to thoughtfully plan how they’re going to serve their children birth to 5. (Universal preschool) is a part of that, but we also want them to let us know how they’re retaining current infant (and) toddler slots and how they’ll recruit more professionals to work with birth to 5.”

Dr. Lisa Roy began her role as executive director of Colorado’s Department of Early Childhood in spring 2022. More than 60,000 Colorado youth are estimated to be eligible next year for the state’s expanded preschool program. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Department spokesperson Tova Cohen said that infant and toddler care is being considered at every step of the development of the state’s expanded preschool program.

“Everyone acknowledges that there might be adverse impacts from universal preschool,” Cohen said. “And as a result, it’s weaved all throughout our work, even on the (universal preschool) team. They are going to have in the back of their mind, are these decisions that we’re making, are these resources we’re providing, do they have a potential to have an adverse impact on infant and toddler care?”

The state law that codified Colorado’s expanded preschool program spells out the need to be proactive in protecting infant and toddler care. The law notes that in setting funding rates for preschool, “the department must consider strategies to mitigate the effect of preschool funding on the availability of child care services for infants and toddlers within communities and areas in the state.”

Very few school districts care for infants and toddlers, with home-based child care providers and center-based providers playing a more prominent role in serving those age groups, Roy said.

“If they decide not to participate in (universal preschool), then they have an arrangement where parents are willing to pay,” Roy said. “It’s like asking, will a doctor go out of business if they don’t take insurance?”

Roy is confident that many providers will take part in Colorado’s expanded preschool program after helping run the Denver Preschool Program in which most providers continued to offer infant and toddler care along with preschool, she said.

Maverick, 2, and Liam, 2, play with toy bears on Sept. 23, 2022, at Stacey Carpenter’s in-home daycare in Greeley. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The new department has also worked to preserve infant and toddler care throughout Colorado by partnering with early childhood councils and funneling grant dollars into infant and toddler care. One example: the state has collaborated with Early Milestones Colorado to give about $23 million in federal COVID stimulus funds to child care providers and government agencies so they can better tackle challenges brought on by the pandemic, with some of those dollars used to help expand infant and toddler care.

Roy is most concerned about elevating pay so that all educators earn a living wage and aren’t motivated by money to teach one age over another.

She worries less about educators committed to infants and toddlers transitioning into teaching preschool because, in her experience, those educators can’t comprehend leaving the babies they grow to love for older students.

“But let’s make sure that they make a living wage as well,” Roy said, “so that they don’t feel the pressure of, ‘I have to do something that is not probably my bailiwick so that I can make more money.’”

Erica Breunlin

Email: erica@coloradosun.com Twitter: @EricaBreunlin