Hundreds attend conference to improve early childhood care

KEARNEY, Neb. (KSNB) - Politicians, child care providers and educators are working together to solve some of the challenges in early childhood care across the state.

More than 400 people attend a conference Monday in Kearney focusing on how to improve the quality of early childhood care in Nebraska. (Kelsey Dickeson, KSNB)

More than 400 people met for the "Thriving Children, Families and Communities" conference Monday at the Younes Conference Center in Kearney to discuss ways to improve the quality of early childhood care.

Danielle Frank was at the conference. She owns Smiling Faces Academy in Kearney. Frank said she started the business, because she couldn't find quality childcare for her own kids. Part of that reason is low staffing caused by low pay.

"It is stressful. Everybody loves these children, and that's why they're there, but the love can't pay their bills," Frank said.

According to the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, the median wage for childcare workers in Nebraska was $19,620 in 2015. That's just $3,000 below the poverty line for a family of three.

Frank said that low pay causes high turnover rates, which impacts her business in the long run. It also can make it difficult for providers to find caretakers to provide that quality care.

"We really in our hearts want this quality of care, but we need to have less turnover in staffing, and getting that relationship with the parents so that they can trust us in some of the changes with staffing I think is by far the most important thing," Frank said.

The Buffett Institute lists nearly 80 percent of children from birth to age five are in some form of paid child care in Nebraska. But the amount of child care workers doesn't match that need.

The Buffett Institute lists there are currently a little more than 2,000 people serving at-risk kids from birth to five years old, but the need is almost five times that.

Having more child care workers to meet the amount of kids in daycare will help improve the quality of care which is linked to a better economy.

"By having quality child care in the community, we have the incentive for workers to come and move into that community, and also the motivation to stay in that community," said Samuel Meisels, executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.

But for some, paying for that quality early childhood care can break the bank.

Carol Renner, former associate superintendent at Kearney Public Schools, said four years of daycare or other childhood services is equivalent to paying four years of college.

Many people want to work on funding for family's to help them with those high costs.

"If we start very early with families who need care for their infants so that they can get into the workforce, we're solving more than one problem, but parents need to feel that their children are in a safe, caring environment," Renner said.

There is a group in place addressing some of these problems. It's the Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission, which is made up of 40 leaders in education, child care and politics across the state.

The group has worked for three years to change government policy and funding to improve conditions for child care workers, as well as the quality of those services.