Preschool Licensing

Preschool Licensing

In the United States and Canada, child care licensing is the first step towards opening a daycare or preschool. Without a license or waiver, programs cannot legally enroll children.

Licensing agencies look for two things: does the program itself meet state requirements, and does the building pass inspection?

Depending on local regulations, applying for a preschool license can be time intensive at best, and a red tape nightmare at worst. But government oversight is essential for protecting children's safety. I've found it helpful to remember this during my cooperative preschool's long journey towards licensing, which is still pending a few building inspections.

Here are some tips for making the child care licensing process smooth and (relatively) painless.

Read the Rulebook. All of It!

To get started, identify a prospective location, such as classroom space at a house of worship, and contact your state or province's daycare licensing office: the Department of Social Services in California, for example, or the Department of Family and Protective Services in Texas.

If your phone call goes anything like mine did, you will be assigned a representative, who will recommend that you read local child care licensing guidelines - every single word! I took her advice and read all 164 pages of Illinois' rulebook.

When the representative and I met in person to discuss my plans to launch Oak Leaf Cooperative School, I came prepared with plenty of clarifying questions.

Check the rulebook to see if your program qualifies for a license waiver. Exempt programs often include half-day preschools and enrichment classes. (More on this further down in the article.) If the waiver requirements are unclear, your licensing representative can help.

If your program does need a child care license, the rulebook will walk you through the application process. In my case, I had to mail a paper copy to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, along with a whole host of supporting documents, including a staffing plan, policy handbook, radon test results, program director credentials, and budget.

Once the application was approved, my licensing representative contacted the fire marshal's office to request a fire safety inspection. I then had to wait for a fire inspector to contact me to schedule a visit. In Ontario, Canada, the Child Care Center Licensing Manual explains that the onus is on licensees to determine whether classroom space meets fire, health, and safety regulations.

A close reading of local laws will help you identify any potential roadblocks. Even after identifying hurdles - such as onerous staff qualification requirements, or a very low staff to student ratio - it's important to stay on top of any changes to the guidelines.

In Virginia, where Dianne Rose, president of Parent Cooperative Preschools International, teaches at a cooperative preschool, parent volunteers are required to have as many training hours as paid assistant teachers.

"If a parent isn't qualified as an aid, parents cannot be alone with children," Rose said. "No parent is going to do the amount of training a teacher is going to do."

After some legislative action, Virginia's licensing agency reduced the pre-service education requirement for parent volunteers from 16 hours to 4.

Most licensing guidelines are available online. Your licensing representative should be able to provide a link, but you can always search the name of your state or province + child care licensing rules.

But What About a "Cheat Sheet?"

There's no substitute for reading every word in the rulebook, tedious as that may be, but it can help to know some basic regulations offhand. Some websites allow child care providers to search key preschool licensing rules by state.

Canadian preschool directors can visit Finding Quality Childcare. The website is geared towards parents, but offers valuable insights on staff-to-child ratios and training requirements for daycare providers.

Waivers and Exemptions

Some states waive child care licensing requirements for programs that fall outside the scope of full-day child care.

Prekindergarten programs at private and public elementary schools are exempt from licensing in Illinois. In New York, preschools operating for less than three hours a day are not governed by licensing rules for day care centers. Texas exempts skill-based classes, such as karate and gymnastics, from licensing. And in Ontario, home-based programs that care for less than five children over the age of two, or three children under the age of two, don't need a child care license.

Sometimes, local law requires programs to apply for a waiver. In Georgia, founders of half-day preschools must submit a flier, website link, and policy handbook for approval, and are subject to site inspections by the state.

Relationship Building

Licensing representatives can be wonderful to work with. If they're doing their job right, they will set your program up for success. But all reps are constrained by office politics, bureaucracy, and, of course, what's written in the rulebook.

Join a network of local preschools to get the scoop on internal politics. Does the local licensing office have an obstructionist boss? Does the department leader allow some leeway in how rules are interpreted?

A preschool director I met through a networking group advised me to gather the contact information for key building inspectors. If the state fire marshal calls to schedule an initial inspection, for instance, save his or her cell phone number to follow up directly in the future, rather than going through bureaucratic channels.

Find Seed Money

Some states, including California, charge a child care licensing application fee. Without tuition money flowing in during the licensing process, how will you pay the fee - and purchase classroom supplies, print marketing materials, or pay staff to help with setup?

Small nonprofit preschools can't exactly request a bank loan, so finding seed money through other means is key. VELA education fund offers micro-grants for educational startups. Fundraising among board members and prospective families is another option.

Get your Ducks In a Row

It can be tempting to wait until you are far along in the licensing process to gather classroom supplies or research insurance quotes. But the more you can do in advance, the better. I'd advise taking the following actions early on:

  • Prepare enrollment marketing materials.
  • Advertise to local families that a new school is launching soon, and enlist help from community volunteers.
  • Write policy handbooks for parents and employees, if not already required by the licensing application.
  • Set up classroom space, if your future landlord will let you get a head start. At the very least, begin to gather supplies and furniture required by licensing guidelines. Solicit donations from the community and Facebook's Buy Nothing Project.
  • Research insurance policies. General liability, property, directors & officers, and workers comp are the ones to start one.
  • Develop a timeline and plan for recruiting staff.
  • Create a checklist for documents that need to be included in student and employee files.

Additional Permits

A state license may not be the only government approval you need to start enrollment. Depending on local zoning laws, your preschool might need a special use permit from your city, town, or village.

Check with your prospective landlord, or directly with a city planner, whether you will need a permit - or two, or three. I was surprised to learn that Oak Leaf would need to pay for a village permit to permanently display a sign at the school entrance.

It's the price to pay for doing business -- and a very important one, at that. If the licensing journey feels long and discouraging, try to keep an eye on your organization's mission. High quality preschools and daycares are in demand and necessary.

Liana Grey

Liana Grey

Liana is the founder and president of Oak Leaf Cooperative School, a nature-based preschool launching soon in the Chicago area. She is also a blogger, content writer for Jovial, and proud mom of twin toddlers.

About Jovial

Jovial offers high-quality preschool management software — at no charge — to all non-profits and smaller for-profits.

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