Vernessa Easly makes hot meals for the kids at her and her husband's Little Tykes Day Care in Long Beach. 
Vernessa Easly makes hot meals for the kids at her and her husband's Little Tykes Day Care in Long Beach.  - 

One day, there may be universal pre-school everywhere in the U.S., but the scenario where every four-year-old is in school remains a long way off. In the meantime, some of the gap is filled by a fleet of women, working out of their own homes, providing childcare and preschool services. They tend to only make news when something awful happens to a child. Yet in many neighborhoods, these workers are the glue that holds a community together.

Take Vernessa Easly. She has run a home-based childcare for 19 years out of her Long Beach, California home. Her day starts around 5:45 AM as she prepares breakfast for her early arrivals. The first child is dropped off at 6:00 AM.

Vernessa’s husband, Earle, quit his job at the local school district some years ago and joined her in running the business, which they call "Little Tykes." They employ one full-time and one part-time teacher, and they serve up to 24 kids a day.

Easly’s proud of her blended curriculum that incorporates all the things little ones need; from singing, literacy and pre-science lessons, to healthy meals and lots of outdoor play.

Home childcare providers like Easly tend to do it all these days, as families rely on them for more than just childcare. Single mom, Kinta Cox, has sent her daughters to Easly since they were toddlers.

Easly has attended parent-teacher meetings when Cox could not get off from work, and she has even driven the girls home when Cox had car issues—all at no-extra charge.

“She’s taken my kids to the doctor during emergencies,” Cox says. “She is there for me.”

Easly will often keep Cox’s daughters well into the evening if she is running late at work or stuck in traffic. Easly also feeds the girls a hot breakfast and dinner, lessening Cox’s food costs.

Yet providers like Easly are not making much more than the low-income families they serve. Easly estimates she and her husband brought in a maximum of $40,000 combined last year. A 2012 Health and Human Services study found that the average home childcare provider nationwide worked 54 hours a week and earned just $22,000.

William Yu of UCLA’s Anderson Forecast studies the economy of early childhood education. He says preschool teachers tend to only make a little more than daycare providers. Last year, according to Yu, the average early childhood teacher in California made $30,000. Yu compares this to a profession in California that demands similar entry qualifications yet pays much more money—prison guards.

“If you look at prison guards, they are making $72,000,” he says.

Yu says it’s all good and well to have bipartisan support for expanding preschool access. Yet, he asks, if you were thinking about your future career, doesn’t it make much more bottom-line sense to become a prison guard?

Almost 14 hours after the day began, around 7:30 PM, there are still a couple of kids waiting to be picked up. Easly’s husband keeps them busy with a coloring project—she’s still bustling about in the kitchen prepping the food for the next day.