Grants help child-care providers raise quality without raising rates

Running a child-care center means keeping a careful eye both on the kids in your care and the budget of your business.

Dawn Arbuckle, owner of God’s Little Blessing day care in Pinconning, says it’s tougher than ever to balance what her customers pay for her an hour of care against what she pays employees for an hour of work.

She’s not alone. It’s a problem child-care centers everywhere face. 

Bay County is home to about 5,456 kids age 5 and under, says Rich VanTol, who coordinates early childhood education programs through the Bay-Arenac ISD.

Experts think families will need child-care for about 4,528 of those kids. But there are only 87 licensed providers with three star ratings or higher with room for 3,221 kids. That leaves a gap of 1,307 children without a high-quality, reliable child-care provider. Read more about the issue, and steps being taken to resolve it, is this Jan. 12 Route Bay City article.

This past fall, the Bay Area Community Foundation partnered with the Bay-Arenac ISD and Bay County to create the Bay County ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) Child-Care Grant Program. The program awarded $300,000 to 21 local child-care providers to help providers, ease the workforce shortage, and reduce barriers to access.

Finding quality child-care at an affordable price is a concern for many families. At the same time, child-care providers struggle to pay a fair wage to employees while still remaining affordable for families.“Teaming up with the County of Bay for this grant program was a great opportunity to support our local child care providers and littlest community members,” says Madi Syring, Program Associate for the Bay Area Community Foundation. 

“These providers often go unrecognized in their work, but play a vital role in child development, serving as stand-ins for parents, our children's first teachers. Supporting them in their continued efforts to expand capacity and improve quality of care significantly contributes to the stability of our community, and it was truly special to be part of such a meaningful initiative.”

Arbuckle’s child-care center received $18,750 through the program. She says the money made all the difference for her employees and the parents who trust her with their children.

“It definitely helped,” Arbuckle says. “Ours went to wages.”

Thanks to the grant, Arbuckle is able to pay her employees a higher hourly rate without increasing what she charges parents. Higher pay means she can attract and retain high-quality employees. 

“It has helped in that area,” she says.

The funds, though, aren’t a long-term answer to the problem.

Currently, Arbuckle says tuition for three children just covers one employee’s wages. But state regulations require her to have a second employee as soon as she four children are in her care. 

“If I have four kids 18 months, I have to have two assistants here,” Arbuckle says. “I cannot have four children under 18 months at one time by myself.”

That means she has to carefully monitor how many people she has working against the number of children she expects on any given day. 

“You’ve just got to play the numbers game,” she says.

One child-care provider, God's Little Blessings Daycare in Pinconning, used the ARPA funds to raise employee wages without raising fees to families.Quality matters too. 

Arbuckle has a Bachelor’s Degree in Early Childhood Education. The state requires everyone at the child care center to be certified in first aid, CPR, and health and safety. In addition, Arbuckle requires that each of her employees take 10 hours of continuing education credits in order to keep her Great Start To Quality rating.

The time and money needed to maintain those standards quickly adds up. Arbuckle is reluctant to pass the cost onto her families.

Currently, Arbuckle charges $5.25 per hour for children under 3 years old. The rate drops to $5 an hour once children are at least 30 months old and potty trained. Arbuckle points out that’s not much different than what most families pay babysitters for an evening.

“Babysitters get paid more than we do and most babysitters are teenagers and they’re not educated in Early Childhood Education,” she says.

Prior to the pandemic, Arbuckle said her rates were $3.50 and $3.25 per hour. 

“I was at the same price for years,” she says. “I just wanted to make sure I could pay my bills and help parents.”

She says she was forced to raise her rates when the cost of living rose dramatically between 2020 and today. 

“Post pandemic, it had to go up considerably,” she says. 

Paying minimum wage was no longer enough to attract high-quality employees. The only way to pay employees more was to charge families more.

“The cost of living rose, minimum wage went up … that money had to come from somewhere, so I had to get it from my parents,” she says.

The Bay Area Community Foundation grant helped her cover expenses without raising what she charges parents. But she realizes it’s not a permanent solution. The money runs out in October. After that, Arbuckle isn’t sure how she’ll make ends meet.

“The parents can’t afford to pay $7 per child,” she says. “I try not to make my prices too high.”

In other parts of the state, the going rate for a licensed child care center is $10 per hour, Arbuckle says. Many centers require parents to pay for a set number of hours each week, whether or not they need those hours. 

Arbuckle understands, though, that many of her families can’t pay for hours they don’t need. And they can’t afford a higher hourly rate than she already charges.

“I am in a lower-income area and parents can’t pay that,” Arbuckle says. 
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Read more articles by Kathy Roberts.

Kathy Roberts, a graduate of Central Michigan University, moved to Bay City in 1987 to start a career in the newspaper industry. She was a reporter and editor at the Bay City Times for 15 years before leaving to work at the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, Covenant HealthCare, and Ohno Design. In 2019, she returned to her storytelling roots as the Managing Editor of Route Bay City. When she’s not editing or writing stories, you can find her reading books, knitting, or visiting the bars of Bay County. You can reach Kathy at