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Are these companies the future of U.S. childcare?

August 23, 2021, 12:53 PM UTC
The U.S. is finally paying attention to its decrepit childcare infrastructure.
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Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Kathy Hochul gets ready to take over as NY governor, Stitch Fix stylists are quitting, and we’re pondering the future of U.S. childcare. Have a great Monday.

Today’s guest essay comes to us from Fortune senior writer Maria Aspan:

– Inside Big Daycare. Is there any part of U.S. childcare that isn’t broken?

After months of covering the grim—and ongoingcrisis in women’s employment, that was the question I couldn’t get out my head. Childcare isn’t the only factor imperiling women’s careers, but there’s no denying that the closures of schools and daycares that have forced millions of women to juggle work and childcare for the past year and a half—or to drop out of the paid workforce altogether—have had a colossal and disastrous effect.

The childcare industry was in dire straits long before the pandemic. It’s expensive for parents—yet low-paid for workers—yet low-margin for providers. More than half of U.S. children lived in childcare “deserts” even before COVID closed down the industry and sent many of the small daycares and providers of “center-based” childcare out of business permanently; as of this April, a third of centers have not reopened.

The survivors are “just trying to hang on,” Fela Barclift, founder and executive director of Brooklyn’s Little Sun People, told me, in a new feature Fortune published this morning. Elliot Haspel, the author of Crawling Behind: America’s Child Care Crisis and How to Fix It, put it even more bluntly: “Childcare is a failed market.”

Still, there are a few childcare companies that have managed to survive and even grow during the pandemic. My story reports on the state of what we call “Big Day Care,” or more accurately, “Big Childcare”—large, for-profit, center-based childcare companies, led by KinderCare, Learning Care Group, and Bright Horizons.

Thanks to their scale and resources, these businesses are emerging from the pandemic as the strongest remaining pieces of the nation’s decrepit childcare infrastructure—a crumbling system that has at long last captured the attention of the public, as well as that of the Biden administration.

So what role should these growing companies play in the future of the U.S. childcare system? Are they strong enough to overcome the industry’s many long-standing problems? And are national, for-profit entities the best option for caring for America’s children? I spoke with dozens of people in the last few months to answer those questions—and found both critics and fans of the Big Childcare companies. Among them: Kate Mendolia, a mother of two and a former KinderCare customer, who would probably qualify as both.

Mendolia, a senior sales manager for a multinational manufacturing company, told me she had some mixed experiences at KinderCare, but the company “played a huge role in my children’s upbringing,” she says. “As a working mother, this is necessary for me to succeed.”

Read the whole story here.

Maria Aspan
maria.aspan@fortune.com
@mariaaspan

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The Broadsheet, Fortune’s newsletter for and about the world’s most powerful women, is coauthored by Kristen Bellstrom, Emma Hinchliffe, and Claire Zillman. Today’s edition was curated by Emma Hinchliffe

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PARTING WORDS

"The girls rescued themselves. It was their bravery that got them out."

-Elizabeth Schaeffer Brown, an adviser with the Digital Citizen Fund. The organization helped the Afghan girls' robotics team evacuate to safety. 

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