Early childhood nonprofits in Lincoln and Omaha, NE, knew that families didn’t have enough affordable childcare. But until they ran the data, they didn’t realize that such a large part of the problem was accessing that childcare.
First Five Nebraska, a non-profit organization “focused on advancing early childhood care and learning opportunities through policy change, strategic partnerships and public education” wanted to better understand barriers to access. To do this, they partnered with ChildCare Aware of America and the Alliance for Early Success to create a Child Care and Public Transit Dashboard to create a detailed snapshot of how far child care centers are from bus stops. The platform includes data on whether facilities accept government childcare subsidies, and its quality rating from Nebraska’s Department of Education, if it participates in the system.
Among the 1,423 childcare providers that First Five Nebraska included in its dashboard, some are as far as 18 miles from the closest bus stop. Facilities in more urban areas of Omaha and Lincoln often have a bus stop in front of the facility.
Nationally, the percentage of three and four year olds enrolled in pre-school programs is close to returning to pre-pandemic levels—54% of eligible children were enrolled in 2018 and 53.3% in 2022. According to Education Week, 16 states and the District of Columbia have some kind of public pre-k program (Nebraska currently does not have a state-wide universal pre-K program).
While the popularity of public and subsidized preschool and childcare programs is growing, transportation remains a challenge. One California district even mentions on its website that it would be “cost prohibitive” to offer transportation to its youngest students.
The federal government offers the Head Start program for preschoolers whose family income is at or below the federal poverty level, which is $30,000 for a family of four. But the law that governs this program—The Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007—does not mandate that transportation services are provided, beyond “reasonable assistance, such as information about public transit availability.”
Examples of solutions
The Ute Indian Tribe in the Unitah Basin in eastern Utah has offered Head Start programs since 1966, when it was one of the first sites to offer the service as part of the federal War on Poverty. Their program directly employs seven bus drivers who collectively drive approximately 185 children 975 miles to and from school each day.
Some regional transit authorities have decided to invest in offering public transportation for Head Start programs. Heart of Iowa Regional Transit Agency (HIRTA) offers door-to-door service in seven Iowa counties with drivers who are prepared to manage uniquely preschooler challenges like temper tantrums and toilet training accidents. Parents prepay for their child’s transportation through an online system, and the cost of the ride is deducted from their balance.
“We feel that this service gives the children a good start in life, so they’re better prepared to start school,” HIRTA Executive Director Julia Castillo explained to the National Rural Transit Assistance Program.