Start-ups Offer Innovative Databases to Help Parents Seeking Childcare

Kelsey Brunner for The Washington Post
Madison Schroeder, 4, eats her lunch while her grandparents prepare food in their kitchen in Fruita, Colo., April 28, 2024.

In the beginning, Andrea and Travis Schroeder’s hunt for child care in Grand Junction, Colo., was all too typical. They put out a call on Facebook. Crickets. They asked their neighbors. Shrugs. When the Schroeders finally found an open slot, it was at an unlicensed center where, after a few weeks, their adopted 18-month-old granddaughter, Madison, came home “spouting cusswords.” Their next provider was also unlicensed and would sometimes take Madison with her on other jobs – and not be home when the Schroeders came to pick her up.

Then, eight months after their search began, a member of the couple’s church mentioned that she was helping to build a new database of child care providers for the county – and offered to do a search for them. The Schroeders outlined their requirements – preferred location, price, a center that would help them to potty train – and “she came back with a list of licensed centers and how many openings were available,” Andrea Schroeder said. “It made it really easy.”

The Schroeders’ story rings familiar to millions of American families who urgently need child care and can’t find it. More than half of all children – particularly those from low- and middle-income, Hispanic and rural communities – live in a child care desert, which is defined as an area where there are too few licensed slots for the number of children who need care. The crunch only got worse last fall, as the last of $24 billion in pandemic-era funding for child care expired – a funding “cliff” that has since been partially remedied in 11 states and Washington, D.C., but not nationwide.

Yet in the Schroeders’ case, the solution was simple: a database. Such searchable directories are a given in many wealthy industrialized countries, where the state oversees, and often pays for, child care. But in the United States, where you can find nearly anything in seconds online, most child care centers don’t even have a website. According to a survey conducted by Upfront, a New York-based software firm that builds child care databases, only about 40 percent of providers have a website – and only a fraction of those are maintained or updated.

“Imagine you were looking for an apartment and you were only able to see 40 percent of the inventory,” said Dana Levin-Robinson, Upfront’s CEO. “And of the ones listed, only 20 percent had the price listed and half listed the number of bedrooms. Would you use that? No, you would not.”

Upfront and a handful of other companies are building on an effort that began in the wake of the pandemic, when state and municipal governments received federal stimulus funds for child care. Now, the private sector is taking note of companies with systems designed to bring the search for child care into the digital age.

The software firm, BridgeCare, which built the Colorado county’s database, works in 14 states including Texas, Alabama and Connecticut – and, in February, announced $10 million in venture capital funding. Upfront has deployed a statewide search in Maryland and will launch in two more states this summer. The Los Angeles-based firm Upwards works with private employers as well as municipalities and has raised more than $43 million to date.

Kelsey Brunner for The Washington Post
Madison Schroeder plays with blocks at the kid’s church at the Bethel Assembly of God in Grand Junction, Colo.

‘Wild West’

The $60 billion child care industry has long been ripe for Silicon Valley-style disruption. But the challenges of imposing order on a messy, fragmented system have deterred many venture capitalists with a taste for fast growth.

For one, aggregating existing data is grueling. Licensing regulations vary from state to state, which makes it hard to build one national system that caters to parents everywhere. The data that is stored electronically is often housed at disparate agencies whose systems don’t talk to one another. For example, in New York, the Office of Children and Family Services licenses providers – except in New York City, where center infant and toddler programs are regulated by the Department of Health, while pre-K programs for 3- and 4-year olds are overseen by the Department of Education.

Furthermore, there’s no repository for the information most valuable to parents: How much does care cost? What hours are centers open? Which providers have open spots? Another wrinkle is that as many as half of child care providers offer care in their homes. These providers, mostly women, are running small businesses on slim to nonexistent margins, so there’s often no one to build a website, maintain a Facebook page, or even answer the phone when desperate parents call.

“Childcare is the wild west,” said Laura Weeldreyer, executive director of the Maryland Family Network (MFN), a nonprofit that serves parents and child care providers. “Enrollment data, price data, attendance data – all the things you need to know – don’t exist.”

Weeldreyer came to MFN after a career in K-12 education, a sector she describes as “drowning in data.” In 2022, bolstered by additional funds from the pandemic-era stimulus, MFN hired Upfront to build a statewide searchable database of providers for parents and its team of child care consultants.

Called LOCATE, it allows parents to instantly see where child care providers are located, what ages they serve and at what price. It also highlights centers that have open spots and provides a messaging platform and contact information. Through recent data-collection campaigns across the state, Upfront identified 1,600 vacancy spots that providers had not previously shared.

A ‘broken market’

While these databases can solve the problem of information, it remains unclear whether they can budge the elephant in the room for parents – namely, cost. In 2021, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen called child care “a textbook example of a broken market.” According to the Treasury Department, an average family with at least one child under five must spend 13 percent of their income to pay for high-quality child care. Meanwhile, child care workers earn on average just $27,000 a year.

But what these databases can do is show parents that there are more options than they knew about. According to BridgeCare, which conducted a national survey in 2018, providers say slots remain open for an average of three to four months. And governments employing these systems are optimistic that the data won’t just showcase existing availability but help create new spots in the places where they are most needed.

Take Mesa County, where the Schroeders found care. Perched on the western slope of Colorado, it’s mostly rural, but many residents work in the county’s largest city, Grand Junction. By analyzing search data, the Mesa County Partnership for Children and Families was able to see exactly where in the city parents were looking for care and advise a local child care provider on the best place to open a second center. With the help of BridgeCare’s software, the county has been able to boost the number of child care slots available by about 10 percent since 2021.

For a parent on the hunt for child care, a simple search can feel like a miracle. When Charisé Lake-Shenoda, a 33-year-old mother of twin toddlers, moved to Maryland in the fall of 2023, she spent a month searching for child care while working full time. She joined a paid service, which found nothing, and begged colleagues and neighbors for recommendations. She often found herself pushing her children in a stroller during virtual meetings to keep them quiet.

Then, in October, she saw a post on Reddit about LOCATE. “I went and searched town by town, then emailed a bunch of providers. A woman emailed me back that same afternoon to say she had slots for both children,” Lake-Shenoda said. “I started weeping on the phone.”