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McKinstry: The ABCs of day care costs

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Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.


Day care. It's what college used to be.

With the cost of care creeping upto $10,000, $20,000 and even $30,000 a year, it's no wonder why working parents are drowning in day care.

Many parents wonder why they're schlepping on Metro-North or doing an express checkout at work when a huge chunk of their pay goes straight to their 401 (preK): the mini-mortgage that can take years to pay off with the stepchild of student loan debt, credit cards.

Quality care is worth it. But too often what's offered is mediocre and expensive. Many parents I know say they're not aware of many affordable alternatives.

We've come a long way from having neighbors, grandmothers or the village clown watch our kids, and our options, in many ways, are better than our parents'. But we still have more information available when choosing restaurants, movies or the latest electronics than we do when looking for someone to look after our children while we work.

"Child care has largely been a mom-and-pop operation," said Kathy Halas, executive director of Westchester Child Care Council. "The thing is: To do it well, it's a big deal."

A challenge is that child care is based on a business model that isn't working. The field often attracts lower-paid workers who may love children, essential in this line of work, for sure, but don't necessarily have the right skills or a strong understanding of child development or psychology.

Many providers are great, and most parents can appreciate those caregivers who do incredible work under very difficult situations; we'll sing their praises for a lifetime.

But licensing standards for working in a nail salon or veterinarian's office are far more stringent than for taking care of kids.

While Halas pointed out that child care workers don't need to have a college degree or "even have to be literate," she added, "It should not be a default career."

One way to improve the quality of care is to change the culture: Treat day care more like public education, Halas said. With science showing that the first five years of a child's life are the most critical for brain development, that logic is sound. In fact, she said, those early years in some ways are more important than the college years spent studying philosophy, trigonometry or the NCAA brackets.

Money invested early on -- whether by parents, taxpayers or private sources -- would save on more expensive remediation and social services later on, according to Walter Gilliam, professor of child psychiatry and psychology at Yale University Medical School. Money spent on early childhood development, particularly for disadvantaged and poorer kids, pays dividends for society and the economy.

Study after study shows that high-quality care in the early years saves money and creates better academic and economic opportunities over a lifetime, he said. "Good things at one age beget good things at a later age," according to Gilliam.

But public investment in day care isn't an easy sell, as exemplified by the battle in recent years over how much money should be spent on day care subsidies in Westchester County. That battle is about to pick up again as fees for the Title XX program, aimed at helping lower income families, are slated to go up by 15 percent this summer.

Taxes are so high here, and governments and school districts are cutting teachers and programs. That puts day care low on the list of funding priorities. But it shouldn't be.

It wasn't long ago that some companies were thought to be trailblazers in the field. Providing on-site care was the cost of getting good employees, particularly women.

Some of the highest-quality care is still employer-based, Gilliam said, and ultimately for any program to be successful, "it's about picking the best teachers and staff."

Once you have that in place, it doesn't take much more to offer top-notch service, he said.

Free day care isn't going to happen -- and it shouldn't. Companies aren't going to cover the entire load, either. As with good solutions, it requires a balanced approach.

Like the model for paying for college -- saving a third before, paying a third as you go and borrowing the balance -- the day care dilemma needs a similar solution.

More public dollars, company incentives, and mechanisms for families to pay their share are needed. Increasing the amount parents can save in tax-free dependent care accounts -- which, at $5,000 per family, doesn't go very far -- and tax deductions would go a long way in improving care and keeping parents in the workforce.

That's good for business.

Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.