Get the most from day care


Day care is a growing business, and, as parents know, it's growing in cost as well. This makes it vital to make the right decisions about keeping costs manageable and obtaining the best care.

"Families who are poor may pay 20 percent or more of their income for care -- their biggest expense outside of rent -- while the amount is closer to 5 or 10 percent for middle-income families," said Barbara Reisman, executive director of the New York-based Child Care Action Campaign, a non-profit advocate on day-care issues. "The government spends $6.7 billion a year on child care, a large portion of it through the Dependent Care Tax Credit on families' income taxes."

Ask basic questions of any child care center:

* What is the fee structure, how often is payment due and is there a discount for advance payment?

* Is the program licensed and does it run year-round?

* What age children do you care for and what are the hours of care? What is the maximum number of children you'll accept in a group and how many care-givers are in each group?

* What are staff qualifications?

The cost of child-care centers or family day care (in which your child stays in someone else's home) varies .

For example, the weekly cost for a child under age 3 at a center in a large metropolitan area such as Chicago averages $126 in the city and $109 in the suburbs, according to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies. Some centers charge $30 more than that weekly average, others $30 less.

In the case of family day care, the cost for children under age 3 averages $74 city and $52 suburbs. However, the cost for pre-school and school-age children is quite comparable between child care centers and family care.

In a smaller city, such as Charlotte, N.C., average weekly cost for a child under age 3 at a child care center is $85, pre-school $73 and school-age $37. Family day care for a toddler averages $75, pre-school $65 and school-age $47.

"The cost of day care is affected by federal subsidies which are often regulated by the states, regional trends and the ages of the children," explained Tutti Sherlock, executive coordinator of the Rochester, Minn.-based National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.

For example, the federal Family Support Act pays for the child care of welfare recipients in training programs, she said. Another subsidy is the Child Care Development Block Grant for the working poor. In addition, in some communities, the United Way donates money to particular centers.

Costs could be even higher than they are, say experts in the field.

"Most child-care staffers earn about half what they could earn with similar credentials and training if they were in a public school setting," said Barbara Willer, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based National Association for the Education of Young Children. "But, because most parents can't afford the child care costs already, salaries have been kept artificially low."

Look into possible financial breaks.

"Some child-care programs provide a cost break if there is more than than one child from a family enrolled in the center at the same time," said William Mattox, director of policy analysis for the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council.

When you do visit a center, be sure to determine: Whether the building is safe, clean and well-maintained, with space for both active and quiet play. Whether the care-givers work well with each other and with the children, and whether they respond promptly to distress. Whether there is proper equipment and toys.

"One mistake parents make is to ignore the essentials and be taken in by nice faces or physical surroundings," said Shirley Dean, program director of the Chicago Child Care Society's day-care center.

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