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For some Lincoln families, finding — and paying for — quality child care should get a bit easier.

Child care advocates have created a fund through the Lincoln Community Foundation that was two years in the making, an effort to close the gap between state subsidies and working families that can’t afford the steep cost of quality child care.

Called the Lincoln Littles Early Childcare Fund, the initiative is a partnership of the Lincoln Community Foundation and the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation that will offer tuition assistance to families through qualifying child care providers in Lincoln.

The fund got $750,000 in seed money from the Buffett Early Childhood Fund and the Kellogg Foundation. Several other organizations also have donated, and advocates hope to raise at least $1 million in the first of what will become an annual giving day.

They’ve chosen Feb. 12, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

“The whole vision is that every single person in Lincoln will have the opportunity to reach their hopes and dreams,” said Michelle Suarez, who heads the early childhood education arm of Prosper Lincoln.

“Childhood really sets the tone for one’s life. Research tells us all future behavior and health starts in childhood. We want children to have opportunities to build those foundations for future growth.”

Figuring out how to make that vision a reality is challenging: Lincoln Public Schools has a waiting list of 750 children for its early childhood education programs.

About 78 percent of children live in homes where both parents work — and child care costs an average of $1,000 a month for infants and almost as much for toddlers, Suarez said.

That means putting an infant in child care full-time costs more than sending a freshman to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This year, the annual estimated in-state tuition and fees for 15 credit hours a semester at UNL was $9,246.

Families that live at or below the federal poverty level — $25,750 for a family of four — are eligible for subsidies that cover all child care costs. 

Subsidies pay a portion of child care costs for families living at up to 130 percent of the poverty level — $32,628 for a family of four.

The Lincoln Littles fund would help families who make up to 200 percent of the poverty level, or $51,500 for a family of four. 

Betty Medinger, senior vice president for the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation, used to administer the state program, so she knows how it plays out. Families face dilemmas like this: Do they risk accepting a raise at their job and losing the subsidies?

State subsidies for an infant currently total $11,180.

“The whole point of this is to fill gaps the state subsidy doesn’t cover,” Medinger said. “Nationally, our state has a pretty low threshold for families ... so we are pretty well restricted to the poorest of the poor for child care subsidies. This helps working families with a little assistance for a little longer.”

The fund is set up with another goal in mind: to expand quality child care in Lincoln.

“This is about building capacity and building quality in the community,” said Barb Bartle, president of the Lincoln Community Foundation. “That should have a huge impact for kids.”

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The tuition assistance will be funneled through child care centers, including nonprofit, for-profit, home- and center-based businesses.

Child care businesses will be eligible if they are at step 2 or higher on the state education department’s “Step Up for Quality” rating system and serve at least one child from a low-income family receiving child care subsidies.

The education department’s five-step rating system offers training and resources to interested child care businesses. Step 2 means those businesses have completed some training, among other things.

Bartle said she hopes the fund will not only help families but will encourage churches or entrepreneurs to start child care centers — or encourage existing businesses to expand.

Another goal: to encourage more businesses to join the state’s rating system and work through the steps designed to ensure quality. After the Littles program gets underway, eligibility will change to higher steps on the system, Bartle said.

Just how many families will get assistance remains to be seen, say organizers. But Bartle said she knows Lincoln is a generous community, because she often gets questions about how people can help those in need.

This is one way, she said.

“I don’t want anyone’s mind to get stuck on a million dollars. I hope we go way past a million.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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