Among the many lessons of the past 18 months is the critical importance of high-quality childcare for University and UNC Health staff, students and faculty.
University parents and caregivers faced — and continue to face — unique challenges as we struggle to balance our work and family responsibilities. We had hoped that, as our employer, UNC would prioritize support for its working families. That’s why we are so disappointed by UNC’s decision to turn over management of the 60-year-old University Child Care Center to the for-profit company, Bright Horizons.
The University Child Care Center has provided high-quality early education for young children of University and UNC Health families for over 60 years. It has a deep history of community involvement, beginning with its origins as a parent cooperative. Since 1998, the University Daycare Center has been operated by Victory Village, a non-profit entity that exists solely to run the Center.
Victory Village — which is how most people refer to the University Child Care Center — is overseen by a Board of Directors that consists of parent/caregiver representatives, UNC Health representatives and University representatives. This model, in which the University, UNC Health and current families govern the Center collectively, has allowed caregivers’ and families’ voices to help shape the direction of the Victory Village.
Victory Village is beloved by the UNC community. It has been a model of best practices in early childhood care and education and home to a dedicated, highly-skilled, experienced and diverse staff — many of whom have stayed for decades and longer. Until recently, it was truly a jewel in UNC’s crown — not to mention a recruitment tool for new faculty and clinicians.
Now, all of that has changed. Over the weekend prior to Thanksgiving, with less than a week’s warning, University leadership announced that it had contracted with Bright Horizons to take over operation of the University Child Care Center. We are deeply dismayed by both this decision and the abrupt process through which it was made.
A move to for-profit status
Bright Horizons Family Solutions is a publicly-traded, for-profit company; in 2019, its income from operations was $67 million. In 2020, its CEO received a total compensation package exceeding $2 million. Bright Horizons’ ultimate metric of success is its revenue.
As a not-for-profit entity under Victory Village, the University Child Care Center was able to reinvest profits back into the Center itself. For example, staff members with young children received subsidized/free tuition at the Center, a benefit critical to teacher retention and morale. Remaining a non-profit also helped keep tuition as affordable as possible. While we hope these initiatives and scholarships will continue under Bright Horizons, it seems unlikely.
A loss for family involvement and shared governance
The University Child Care Center Board, and particularly its caregiver/parent representatives, has been instrumental in protecting the unique culture and strengths of the Center, advocating for its teaching staff and ensuring that the voices of all stakeholders are heard. Other Bright Horizons centers do not have an independent Board of Directors that includes parent/caregiver representation. It’s unclear whether the University Child Care Center will maintain its Board under Bright Horizons management, and if so, what the composition of that Board will be — but it seems inevitable that family participation in Center governance will undoubtedly be diminished under corporate management.
A loss of independence
Bright Horizons locations operate according to standardized policy. To what extent will the University Child Care Center be able to act independently according to its own needs and circumstances? This is particularly relevant when it comes to COVID-19 prevention strategies. During the past 18 months, and even before, the Center has benefited enormously from the expertise of caregivers who are health care and public health professionals. Will the Center be able to continue to determine its own COVID-19 and health/wellness policies? To what extent will the Center be able to implement policies that best meet the needs of its families and children — as opposed to the financial interests of Bright Horizons?
A troubling lack of transparency
In making this decision, the University and UNC Health failed to consult with the most important stakeholders in this decision: their own employees and caregivers at the Center. Less than one week passed between the time that current parents were notified about an upcoming change in the operating entity and the announcement that the Center would be turned over to Bright Horizons. It is difficult not to view this lack of transparency and stakeholder involvement as part of a broader failure on the part of University administration to authentically engage its communities in its decision-making processes.
A lost opportunity
Perhaps most saddening is the lost opportunity that this change represents.
Why did the University and UNC Health not lean into the deep expertise of their own faculty and staff instead of recruiting a for-profit company to manage its child care center? If they felt a change in operations was necessary, why did they not consult with colleagues in the School of Education, the Departments of Linguistics and Psychology & Neuroscience, the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, or the Center for Developmental Science about the most innovative models of child care provision? Why did they not establish partnerships that would allow the University Child Care Center to serve as a laboratory for the groundbreaking child development research occurring across our campus, as so many of our peer institutions have done?
There are several R1 public universities models, such as the University of Wisconsin Child Development Lab, the University of Michigan Children Centers, Penn State’s Bennett Family Center, UT Austin’s Child Development Center and the UC Berkeley Early Childhood Education Program. UNC-Chapel Hill itself has a long history as a leader in research on early childhood learning and development, from the Abecedarian Project to the Family Life Project (among many others) — making the failure of the University to involve its own experts all the more inexplicable.
Our children are no longer at the University Child Care Center, having graduated or moved on as our families’ needs changed. But the children of our friends, coworkers and colleagues are, and we wrote this letter because we are deeply concerned about the wellbeing of all UNC families.
We hope that University and UNC Health Care will take action to demonstrate its commitment to maintaining the strengths and unique culture of the University Child Care Center. At a minimum, it must commit to maintaining current tuition rates with minimal (such as 2-3%) annual increases; maintaining current class sizes or teacher-to-student ratios; protecting current Center policies regarding COVID-19 vaccinations and illness exclusion policies; and maintaining (or increasing) all benefits and compensation policies for current staff at the Center.
We are heartbroken and disappointed that the qualities that made the University Day Care Center so exceptional are now likely to be subsumed by corporate, top-down standardization and that UNC administrators have chosen to risk the reputation of the Center as a leader in innovative, high-quality and community-driven early childhood education. We urge University and UNC Health leadership to recommit to prioritizing the voices of its families with young children and to transparent decision making.
Emily Baragwanath, PhD
Associate Professor, Department of Classics
Abigail Haydon, MPH, PhD
Manager of Training Programs, Carolina Population Center
Director of Communications, Carolina Population Center
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