Many early childhood care and education centers are small organizations, often with just one person managing both the educational direction of the center and the day-to-day business operations. These dedicated individuals are also frequently being asked to do sophisticated work with curriculum development and evaluation, often on a shoestring budget.
NLC staff recently attended a convening in Battle Creek, Mich., for organizations working to strengthen local early education systems, specifically through alignment of early childhood education systems. The convening was a great opportunity to share NLC’s alignment work, make deeper connections with partner organizations and take advantage of the collective knowledge and wisdom in the room. All attendees were grantees of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
An interesting model profiled at the event was the shared services model. Shared services models in the early childhood field are a way for early care and education (ECE) providers to share some of the business functions of an ECE operation.
As I learned from Opportunities Exchange, an organization working to support shared services alliances, these models can take many forms, but have the following traits in common.
- Reduced or shared costs and time through joint purchasing, staff sharing, centralized administration or some combination of these;
- Shared program and/or administrative capacity-building through the use of common tools and systems, shared mentoring and supervision and collaborative improvement processes; and
- Reinvestment of cost and time savings into enhanced program quality.
ECE providers can use the savings they gain from adopting a shared services model to invest in high-quality care and education — whether that means increasing their capacity to serve more children or improving the quality of their existing program. Additionally, a shared services model can build learning communities across partner organizations.
Opportunities Exchange has identified eight areas of service sharing for ECE programs: Research and development, classroom supports, administrative services, comprehensive services (family supports), fundraising, staff recruitment and screening, bulk purchasing of services and good and human resources.
An example of a shared services alliance is the Chambliss Center for Children in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Chambliss Center operates a child development center for 300 children and provides management services for 13 community-based ECE programs. Each site maintains their independence with individual nonprofit status, a board of directors and a separate banking account. The sites have the same benefits, employment policies and curriculum. Directors are shared among the sites and training is often done collectively with staff from all sites.
In addition to this type of fee-for-service model, several providers can come together to create a cooperative to provide management services to its members, or an intermediary organization can provide the services on behalf of its members.
A question I kept coming back to was: is there a role for city governments to play in a shared services alliance? As cities work to align early educational systems and improve the quality of ECE, this model could provide an opportunity for cities to work more closely with community providers to achieve the shared goal of high-quality early care and education for all children.
Cities could promote this type of model through their economic development offices by working directly with ECE providers to set up an alliance, and provide expertise and technical assistance or possibly seed money to launch the alliance.
Could cities perhaps go even further and take on a primary role in an ECE alliance? A city could, for example, enter into an agreement with providers to make bulk purchases or serve as host to a training program for teachers from multiple ECE providers within the community. There are many creative ways cities can play a role in easing the administrative and cost burden to community providers in order to improve the quality of education and care for young children.
About the Author: Katie Whitehouse is the Senior Associate for Early Education in the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. Follow Katie on Twitter at @KatieLianeTX.