Finding a Home for Family Child Care in Publicly Funded Preschool - Early Learning Nation

Finding a Home for Family Child Care in Publicly Funded Preschool

Home-based child care is a fact of life in the U.S. On any given day, millions of children spend their days—sometimes their nights—in family child care settings. The decision for a child to attend a family child care home is influenced by multiple factors, but despite their popularity among parents, such homes rarely find their place among state-funded pre-K programs.

Given the number of states that now realize the urgency of expanding their preschool offerings, and the challenge they uniformly face in meeting demand, why have cities and states been slow on the uptake of this valuable option and what it would take to remedy the situation?  What would it look like for family child care homes to be part of states’ publicly funded high-quality pre-K system? And what might that cost?

Such policy questions concerning 3- and 4-year-olds are precisely up the alley of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), whose annual State of Preschool Yearbook has been a rich resource for tracking state-funded preschool efforts for two decades.

GG Weisenfeld

“We consider family child care homes one of the options in a mixed delivery system, and we know the numbers are probably small,” says GG Weisenfeld, NIEER’s associate director of technical assistance. “Originally, we didn’t know exactly how many states are including them and what that looked like. So, we developed a survey and sent it to the states we knew allowed family child care homes to receive state dollars, either directly or indirectly. We followed up with conversations with state leaders and a review of policy manuals and from that, we wrote a paper.”

That paper became a yearslong suite of papers that together comprise a sort of “Everything You Wanted to Know About Family Child Care in Publicly Funded Pre-K But Didn’t Have the Resources to Ask.”

The initiative couldn’t be timelier. In late February, the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human services issued a joint letter encouraging state school and early childhood leaders to collaborate on a mixed delivery approach to preschool and to leverage federal funding to improve access to high-quality preschool. “Mixed delivery” refers to an approach that provides programs in child care centers, Head Start programs, public schools and family child care homes. Every state except Hawaii operates mixed-delivery systems.

The Department of Education has also released guidance to support public schools that use Title I funds for early childhood programming, aimed at closing educational achievement gaps for children of families with low incomes. To implement those programs, policymakers and community leaders will need a much clearer picture of the country’s early care and education mosaic—and the powerful case for family child care as vital to that effort.

Given all the variables, attempting to present the Big Picture of FCC across the U.S. must be a bit like trying to wrangle an octopus into a mayonnaise jar. Nevertheless, NIEER researchers’ first paper, written in partnership with Home Grown, a national collaborative of funders supporting home-based child care, presented a comprehensive look at the role FCCs play in publicly funded pre-K systems in the U.S.

The paper, “Including Family Child Care in State and City-funded Pre-K Systems: Opportunities and Challenges” and its more recent update reveal the complexity of families’ choices for their preschoolers—needs as varied and multifaceted as the child care options themselves. Research shows that families with low incomes or from marginalized communities such as immigrant communities, those in rural settings or communities of color are more likely to use home-based care, frequently drawn by lower costs, proximity to home, or the caregiver’s language and cultural compatibility with the family. Embracing FCC as part of states’ mixed delivery systems therefore presents a ready-made opportunity for the equitable delivery of high-quality preschool.

An important consideration for many of these families is that family child care homes often operate during non-traditional hours—significant for parents working in service industries, medical environments or other sectors that require flexible or non-standard working hours. This necessity puts many FCC homes at odds with being part of state- or city-funded programs, which typically require facilities to offer part- or full-school days over a 180-day school year. For FCC homes to participate in state-funded pre-K, policymakers need to address how preschool programs can be delivered within these flexible hours outside public-school schedules, and how educators will be paid for hours of care beyond traditional pre-K days. This is just one example of the questions facing policymakers seeking to integrate FCC into their public programs.

Lessons from States

States face major challenges in expanding their preschool systems thanks to the “mix” in mixed delivery. The variety of settings and different types of providers, from faith-based centers and charter schools to Head Start agencies and family child care homes, leave administrators and policymakers with the Herculean job of distributing funding and maintaining quality across a profoundly complicated landscape.

Karin Garver

NIEER researchers, with support from the Learning Policy Institute, took an in-depth look at how policymakers in Alabama, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and West Virginia have addressed the challenge. As “State Preschool in a Mixed Delivery System: Lessons from Five States” shows, each of the five states featured has taken a different approach but has built high-quality systems that serve at least one-third of their state’s 4-year-olds. The paper concludes with recommendations for state policy, based on the authors’ analysis of what worked in all the states’ efforts to support a strong mixed delivery system across settings.

“Many states have not quite figured out how to seamlessly incorporate family child care within a mixed delivery system,” says Karin Garver, an early childhood education policy specialist at NIEER and one of the paper’s coauthors. “Center-based care in a child care center doesn’t look much different from center-based care in a school district setting but are different compared to a family child care setting. In these papers, we’re trying to outline how to make it doable, to see what it looks like to intentionally incorporate family child care into state-funded pre-K programs.

“It’s important to have foundational policies in place when you set up a program before you start adding massive numbers of children to your rolls,” Garver says. “We see states do the opposite and end up with a lot of trouble. They expand enrollment to a whole bunch of kids and then they try to increase quality. It’s very challenging to course-correct like that once the program is established.”

What’s Needed

As the researchers noted in their state analysis, even those that have built high-quality preschool systems struggle to reach all of their 3- and 4-year-olds. Nationally, just 14% of 3-year-olds and 39% of 4-year-olds were enrolled in publicly funded programs in the 2020-2021 school year. One means of ensuring that more children have access to high-quality preschool is to expand to settings beyond school- and center-based classrooms, such as FCC homes.  NIEER’s “Including Family Child Care (FCC) Programs in Publicly Funded Pre-K: Conditions for Success,” spells out what it will take to do so.

Erin Harmeyer

“Researching and writing ‘Conditions for Success’ was a lengthy process,” says Erin Harmeyer, assistant research professor at NIEER. “We started with a literature review to look at things such as curriculum usage, environmental recommendations and we put together some drafts. Then we had a lot of expert conversations with other researchers and a couple of other institutes. Through these conversations, we edited, refined and revised the conditions for success. Then we got further feedback from FCC educators themselves and from a few other experts in the field, and revised some more until we came up with a final draft.”

Given that degree of vetting, research, feedback and revision, any policymaker or community leader wanting to see that FCC is included in publicly funded pre-K can use “Conditions for Success” as a GPS-accurate roadmap to undertake the journey.

But What About the Cost?

The roadmap laid out in “Conditions for Success” will require sufficient fuel to reach the destination. Recommendations include professional development for providers, including on-site coaching, training, peer-to-peer networks and mentoring, as well as developing a system that provides funding and opportunities for FCC educators to obtain a bachelor’s degree and specialized training for home-based settings.

“NIEER considers the FCC educator having a bachelor’s degree a baseline for quality,” Weisenfeld says. “This is based on the current research that says pre-K teachers need a BA degree and ECE specialization to get the positive outcomes we know they can achieve, but only through a high-quality program.

“Early childhood is when children’s brains are developing and the most significant part of their growth and development is happening. Why not have the people with the highest degrees and the most qualifications educating that population? The FCC educators want to have those degrees and they want to be compensated accordingly. We feel that if we can support this population of educators who want degrees, want to make a difference and want to operate a high-quality program, why not support this?”

For the paper, “Estimating the Cost of Supporting Quality: Including Family Child Care Homes in Publicly Funded Pre-K Programs,” NIEER used a previously developed tool called the Cost of Preschool Quality and Revenue. The tool is intended to help policymakers, advocates and state administrators understand the true cost of implementing a state funded preschool program. The tool enables users to consider various scenarios and see the impact of adding or not adding certain quality standards.

“We looked at how much states are spending now, what we think they should be spending and how much it would cost to achieve that,” says Garver. “Then we looked at the difference and asked, ‘How many are within striking difference of what it would cost to serve children in FCC settings, assuming that they pay comparable salaries to teachers in K-12 settings, use a network system to provide supports for providers and so on.’

“It’s interesting that it’s just not that much more expensive. When we started this project, we had some concern that our work would show that the cost of serving children in family child care settings was too high for states to take it up. That’s just not the case, depending on how the state sets up the system.”

The bottom line, the researchers agree, is that states aren’t spending enough on the programs they have. Given their stated commitment to providing high-quality pre-K to all their preschoolers, they need to be spending more on all programs.

“If they’re spending what they should be on those programs,” says Weisenfeld, “they’re not that far away from where they need to be in order to incorporate family child care more systematically into their state funded pre-K program.”

NIEER authors involved in research and writing this suite of papers are Dr. Lori Connors-Tadros, Ellen Frede, Karin Garver, Erin Harmeyer, Kate Hodges and GG Weisenfeld.


National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) Empowering young children’s growth by partnering with educators, conducting and sharing research, and shaping early care and education (ECE) policy and practice worldwide.

NIEER State of Preschool 2022 Yearbook

Home Grown A national collaborative of funders committed to improving the quality of and access to home-based child care through policy, movement building, infrastructure and financing, and advancing quality through core practices, innovation and measurement.

K.C. Compton worked as a reporter, editor and columnist for newspapers throughout the Rocky Mountain region for 20 years before moving to the Kansas City area as an editor for Mother Earth News. She has been in Seattle since 2016, enjoying life as a freelance and contract writer and editor.

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