Apples and Oranges: Family Child Care Homes Shift the Thorny Knot’s Paradigm

Many conversations around the professionalization of early childhood education (ECE) as a field of practice revolve around the triad of workforce directives to credential, better compensate, and diversify. However, I find these conversations tend to ignore the unique circumstances that family child care providers confront in this regard. If ECE continues to approach these expectations solely through the lens of center-based care, though, or by trying to force a center-based peg into the family child care hole, family child care providers will continue to be slighted, along with the children and families they serve.

As CEO of the Carole Robertson Center for Learning on Chicago’s West Side, I have gained an appreciation for how the underlying logic of ECE’s thorny knot shifts in the context of family child care. As a field, we need to realize that a host of assumptions are embedded in the knot analogy that derive from the status of the center-based model. For example, when discussing compensation, we typically are referring to salaries and benefits. When talking about bachelor’s degrees, we usually are referring to ECE degrees. And when advocating for a diverse workforce, we mostly are thinking of individuals who wear the familiar hat of “educator.” While largely the case for center-based sites, these assumptions overlook the fact that family child care homes are businesses.

The ECE field needs to expand beyond its center-based stance if it wants to ensure solutions to its thorny knot increase access to high-quality ECE for children in family child care settings as well as in center-based programs. As Sager writes, family child care homes are an essential resource, in particular for economically vulnerable families that, for cultural or geographical reasons, prefer the intimate environment of home care for their child.

Several previous series’ authors, however, have conflated this sensitivity with an assumption that the field’s thorny knot exists in similar, if not more acute, form in family child care settings. Sager, for instance, contends that family child care providers are unlikely to reap compensation commensurate to their degree, while Doucet argues that a degree requirement will hurt diversity amongst family child care providers, especially for women of color.

I disagree with these assessments, though, because they rely on a narrow understanding of home providers. I have learned from leading an organization that has operated a family child care home network for over two decades that, in fact, this delivery model has more flexibility than center-based programs to accommodate the field’s growing decree for credentials and degrees, increased compensation, and sustainable diversity. But for this potential to be realized, home providers have to be understood as more than educators; their settings have to be acknowledged as small, independent businesses, and they have to be recognized as small business owners.

Recognition of the additional responsibility, however, requires a fuller accounting of what compensation means for home providers. Obviously, more than salaries and benefits are involved because the home setting involves revenues and expenses. This is where the network concept increasingly in vogue becomes key: a network model, also commonly known as a shared services model, can leverage economies of scale, providing budget relief for items that would be analogous to capital expenses in a center-based setting. This model can also reduce or eliminate costs for marketing and recruitment, back-office equipment and support, supplies, trainings, and professional development, line item expenses easily forgotten if we ignore that family child care homes are businesses. A network model can not only increase the revenue available to providers, it can also allow their businesses to expand and boast new offerings. It also allows the network’s “home office” office” to solicit funding opportunities oriented towards economic and workforce development.

The implications of this broadened perspective applies to the thorny knot’s credentialing and diversity threads, too. Many home providers, with Tracy Elbert being just one example, tout the importance of ECE degrees. Others enter the field already having bachelor’s degrees in other fields, such as business or psychology, adding to the field’s diversity. While the subject-matter content of an ECE degree is important, I believe home providers offer proof that a requirement for bachelor’s degrees in ECE may represent another example of one-size-fits-all thinking that warrants revisiting. I would advocate instead for ECE bachelor’s degree programs with a business administration component for family child providers and, as Josephine Queen suggests, course credit for experiential learning. This would allow providers to find their voice and identities as small business owners as well as educators.

When it comes to the field’s thorny knot, I think ECE has two choices. It can recognize the distinctive context and potential of family child care providers or it can continue to ignore the sector’s distinctions from its center-based colleagues. If we grab the first horn, we can expand opportunities to provide families who prefer home providers with quality options. And if the ECE field truly wishes to serve families no matter their program choice, inclusion of family child care voices as both educators and business owners will move this conversation forward.

#GivingTuesday Starts Today

One of our core strengths at the Carole Robertson Center for Learning (CRCL) is our early childhood education whereby we prepare children from birth for kindergarten readiness. We provide support to pregnant women and young families, such as Ayda Guzman, mother of four, who became involved at the Carole Robertson Center when her oldest child was four years old and she was pregnant with her youngest child. During that time, a home visitor from Carole Robertson Center provided Ms. Guzman with information on breast-feeding and other infant development support. The home visitor also assisted Mrs. Guzman by teaching her oldest daughter how to write her name and the alphabet. Ms. Guzman said that that help we provided prepared her daughter for school and that we “go way beyond” her expectations all the time.

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Reflection on the role of CBOs Post CTU Strike

Today begins the first full week of classes in our Chicago Public Schools since the Chicago Teacher’s Union called a strike on October 17th. I cannot help but think that this week’s sunshine forecast reflects much of the optimism and relief that is felt throughout Chicago by teachers and students returning to their classrooms and regular schedules, by parents not having to scramble to find a safe, nurturing environment while they are at work supporting their families and by Mayor Lightfoot and her staff returning to the always-challenging work of managing the rest of this city’s critical issues.

But in between all these hard-working, earnest constituencies, I want to point out, are the Community Based Organizations (CBOs), the backbones of neighborhoods, trusted allies and partners to families that have known their closest CBOs for generations in some cases. These CBOs stepped up during the strike as always, and became even more relied upon during the work stoppage than on other more typical days. Because CBOs, like the Carole Robertson Center for Learning where I am the CEO, foster the well-being of children, of youth, and of families, especially when there is a call for help.

Knowing that reputation, Mayor Lightfoot did not hesitate to ask the Carole Robertson Center to host her press conference on October 16th after which we and other CBOs committed to taking in CPS students for the duration of the strike.

Fred Rogers once famously said that in any emergency situation – and this strike was a real emergency to many parents – “Look for helpers. You will always find people who are helping. ” The Carole Robertson Center for Learning was there to help every day of the strike. To calm parents’ fears. To provide children with an enriching educational environment.
The Carole Robertson Center provided stimulating learning activities, experiences that supported what they are learning in school, strong social emotional supports, a space to discuss how they were feeling as students about the strike, a safety net end of day plan after 5PM where meals were provided until families could pick up. Perhaps most importantly, Carole Robertson Center and other CBOs provided a community with a dedicated staff ready to serve and support the most important members of our City—our children.

So as we all return to our regular schedules and classroom rosters and after school pickup routines, the Carole Robertson Center continues to help children and families with high quality child care, home visiting and out of school time programming. That is our mission every single day and we were honored to have played a key part when the families and children of Chicago needed us the most.

Bela Moté
— Chief Executive Officer