by Julie Capouch, Guest Contributor
I am a cheap person. While the term “cheap” may have negative connotations for most, I accept the label and wear it with pride.
I hate parting with my hard-earned money, love checking my savings account, and if there is a deal to be found on an item I need, you can bet I will find it.
But there is one thing I refuse to skimp or try to trim costs on — child care.
Cut cable and go with streaming options? Done.
Drive around in my paid-off older car? Absolutely.
Buy off-brand just about everything? All the time.
Give up my children’s stellar child care program for a cheaper alternative? Never.
I could not have been successful in graduate school and in my career were it not for the quality, dependable care my children received when they were away from me.
Each time I pick them up, my children were engaged and happy. My children weren’t just “surviving” at the center, they were thriving – in a safe environment surrounded by caring professionals.
That’s why I am willing to shelve my cheap ways and look beyond the price tag when it comes to child care. Sometimes you do get what you pay for, and it’s important to consider more than just expense when weighing child care options.
3 Things To Consider When Weighing Child Care Options
Leadership And Reputation
Whether you are looking on-post or off-post, the goal of your child care search is to find the right program to meet your family’s needs.
You will want to consider the program’s staff-to-child ratio. The smaller, the better.
Be sure to ask about staff professional development, training and certifications.
Also take into consideration staff turnover. Does the center have the reputation of being the place where child care professionals want to work? Or is it the “in-between” place, paying only minimum wage with a poor working environment so staff members only deal with it until something better comes along?
How consistent is the leadership presence? Chances are a center with a director who’s been there for a decade is going to have better staff morale than one that’s had three different directors within the last year.
You will also want to ask questions about policies such as discipline, conflict resolution and safety procedures to ensure they align with your own expectations.
Licensing and Accreditation
Don’t assume a daycare center is licensed and regulated because it is open and operating.
In the state of Alabama, where we are currently stationed, nearly half of all daycare centers are (legally) unlicensed and unregulated due to a religious-exemption loophole.
Although measures are being discussed in the state legislature to fix the problem, as it stands now, 49% of the daycare centers in the state are not required to perform background checks on workers, adhere to staff-to-child ratios, or ensure that staff be trained in First Aid or CPR.
A properly licensed child care program will meet basic safety and health standards and perform background checks on its workers. But looking for an accredited program is also a wise step as accrediting organizations often require higher standards and regulations than most state and local licensing bodies alone.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Council on Accreditation are two well-respected accrediting organizations with rigorous, high standards.
While the child care bill is one that I gladly pay in exchange for the peace of mind it provides me, the reality is the cost has to fit into the family budget.
Strive for the absolute best program your family can afford.
On-post child care centers and child care homes have a fee chart with different categories based on total family income. This can mean a massive amount of savings for families in the lower categories, such as single parent families and those who are newer to the service or have one spouse as a full-time, non-working student.
As a two-income family, we were placed in one of the highest categories. In this area, I could find many options off-post that would be cheaper (and some military families do), but I adore the center here and the people who staff it.
My husband even nicknamed one of the program assistants, who has been working with military children for over 20 years, “Ms. Amazing.” She is the epitome of the type of person one would want caring for a child.
I would cut just about anything from my budget to ensure my children could go there while I am working full-time.
Families who are looking for care off-post may be eligible for fee assistance through Child Care Aware. Child Care Aware provides subsidies for military families receiving care at community-based commercial programs. Each branch has a slightly different fee assistance program, but they all pay subsidies directly to the child care provider to make child care costs for qualifying families the same as they would be for on-post care based on total family income.
When evaluating the cost of a child care program, keep in mind that those fees pay the people who care for your child. As a teacher, I know first-hand that those who choose to work with children or in social service fields rarely go into these fields “for the money,” but they are human too and they have bills to pay.
Finding a truly superior program will make the payment easier to swallow.
As an active-duty military spouse with no family living nearby, there is no way I could have a career without the support and dependability of my on-post child care center.
I am grateful for the service they provide and thankful to have such a marvelous program just minutes down the road. That’s why you won’t find me on the hunt for a more affordable option.
I’ll save the bargain hunting for everything else, but never, ever child care.
Julie Capouch is an Army spouse, mom, and English teacher living in the Southeast. She writes about parenting, education, and military life.