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Partnering to Support Santa Barbara County Parents in the Search for High Quality Child Care

Photo Credit: First 5

Julio Ortega found himself feeling helpless looking for high quality and affordable child care for his three-year-old son, Abel. Ortega, who is a single parent, tried to find support everywhere. While he struggled to get by financially, his income was just over the limit that is required to qualify for government subsidized programs.

He reached out to Children’s Resource and Referral (CRR), the Santa Barbara County Education Office (SBCEO) and First 5 Santa Barbara County, which is an organization that supports the learning and health of children, prenatal through age five, and their families. With the guidance of these coordinated agencies in 2016, and the support of the Santa Barbara Foundation’s William and Lottie Daniel Child Care Scholarships, Ortega’s son was able to attend St. Mark’s Preschool. However, funding from the Daniel Fund and First 5 is competitive and limited. With the start of a new school year, Ortega found himself once again looking for financial support to help pay for child care.

“I would do anything and pay anything if possible to make sure that my son gets the best care, but I don’t know what I am going to do without the scholarship money this year,” said Ortega. “I am a single parent; rent is expensive, and I feel like I have gone everywhere to ask for help. People say that there is a ton of help, but I feel that it is not readily available and, at this point, I am starting to look into transitional housing to see if they will accept me and my son, so even if I cannot pay for housing, I can pay for quality care for my son.”

Ortega is not alone in the challenge of finding quality and affordable child care in Santa Barbara County. The average cost of care is between $10,000 and $16,000 for infants and between $9,000 and $12,000 for preschoolers annually. This range varies depending on whether the program is an in-home family child care provider or a center-based program.

“The cost for child care was so high that it was actually more cost effective for me to stay home when my daughter was born,” said Brandi Burnham, a mother of two. ”Otherwise, I was only working to pay for childcare and, at that point, we could not even afford quality center-based care, so it was just not worth it for me to keep working.”

When it comes to child care, it is not just the cost that matters, the quality of programs is also critically important. Research has consistently shown that children who attend high-quality programs achieve better outcomes.

“Children need high-quality child care to support their healthy brain and socio/emotional development. Parents need child care in order to go to work,” said Ben Romo, Executive Director of First 5. “This is both a child development issue and an economic issue. The Santa Barbara Foundation’s Daniel Fund fills a critical gap, supporting early learning and helping to keep families stable financially.”

Unfortunately, there are very few standards for quality in the state licensing of child care programs. State licensure is primarily concerned with health and safety. Thankfully, in Santa Barbara County a truly collaborative approach to quality improvement in child care settings has been underway for more than a decade. This effort - called Quality Counts - includes assessing programs, coaching them to standards of quality, supporting teacher training and education, and moving programs toward national accreditation. As a result, 43 percent of local center based programs are nationally accredited, compared to a state and national average of 6 percent.

This exciting work involves many key partners, but is primarily led by two agencies: the Santa Barbara County Education Office and Children’s Resource and Referral of Santa Barbara County. The Santa Barbara Foundation and First 5 have aligned their funding to support this collaborative approach to quality improvement. The Santa Barbara Women’s Fund and First 5 have also contributed substantially to support Children’s Resource and Referral’s work in expanding the number of licensed, in-home family child care providers.

However, while research shows that providing high-quality care for 0-5 year olds yields significant long-term benefits, many parents do not understand the importance of quality in child care settings. That said, most parents don’t even have a choice because finding placement for children is just as challenging as finding both quality and affordable care.

“My advice to new parents would be to start looking for child care now,” said Burnham. “I felt crazy when I was looking for child care when I was pregnant, but I am so happy that I did because we ended up on four different waitlists, and it took us a few years to find a space in a quality program where I felt that my girls were actually learning something and being cared for in a way that was improving their development.”

Aligning investments in the early years is one important way for funders to help address these important community needs.

“By investing strategically with other funders like First 5, we better ensure that taxpayer and philanthropic dollars are spent in the most impactful and efficient manner possible,” said Ron Gallo, President and CEO of the Santa Barbara Foundation. “Part of our role as a community foundation is to understand the broader system so we know where investments are most needed and where they will have the most impact.”

For more information about the Santa Barbara Foundation’s partnership with First Five and commitment to early childhood care and education, please contact Rubayi Estes, Director of Evaluation and Learning for the Santa Barbara Foundation at restes@sbfoundation.org.

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