Takeaway: Alabama licenses both center-based and home-based preschools, and the state provides exemptions from licensing in select cases. Required staff-to-child ratios are relatively high as compared to other states, and unfortunately, a substantial number of centers illegally operate unlicensed and without regulation. Alabama’s highly-regarded pre-K offerings are experiencing a surge of financial support from the state to enable access for more children, though the number of children who benefit still remains low.
Like many other states, Alabama offers its own versions of licensed and unlicensed care. Alabama’s state directory organizes preschool programs by district and provides a search function that filters by zip code, licensure, and county. Results are unfortunately limited and only provide operating hours, age range, and contact information.
Alabama’s pre-K program is considered to be the one of the most advanced programs in the country — and as a result, there is substantial statewide demand for it. Due to previous low levels of state funding and a general unawareness of the effectiveness of Alabama’s pre-K, only about 13 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled. To improve access, the Alabama Legislature approved a funding increase, which should see the number of 4-year-olds enrolled in pre-K to rise to 19 percent. The state is committed to making substantial increase for the 2015–2016 school year. Known as “First Class Pre-K," Alabama’s voluntary pre-K program is touted as a means of improving test scores, limiting educational setbacks, and ensuring better professional outcomes for children in the future. Alabama wants to ensure that all children are provided with opportunities for school readiness, including children with disabilities, as outlined by the Department of Children’s Affairs’ developmental standards.
Center-based preschools may operate legally as either licensed or licensed-exempt facilities. Those that are licensed are overseen by the Department of Human Resources, and these preschools must renew their licenses every other year. Licensed day care centers must meet an array of requirements, including posting emergency procedures and daily activity schedules, maintaining a clean and hazard-free environment, and allowing parents access to the facility. They also must comply with designated caregiver-to-child ratios, which vary by child age. The required ratio for children ages 0 to 18 months is 1:5, for children ages 18 months to 2.5 years, 1:7; for children ages 24 months to up to 36 months, 1:8; for children ages 2.5 to up to 4 years, 1:11; and for children ages 4 years to school age, 1:18.
Alabama is currently undergoing a rapid expansion of child care centers in an effort to meet demand for accessible, high-quality pre-K, though parents who are looking to enroll their children in public center-based pre-K should expect long waitlists across the state. Priority status is given to children in low-income, high-risk areas. Alabama has expansive yet general standards for pre-K care.
Home-based care centers, known as family day care homes, are generally required to meet the same standards as child care centers, though the maximum number of children who can be cared for in this setting is six. Homes providing day care for young children are expected to have basic features (such as electricity) as well as childproofing throughout to ensure safety.
Legally unlicensed care in Alabama is officially known as license-exempt care, and it is restricted to specific institutions and organizations. Exemptions are offered to church ministry programs or religious schools. Legally exempt programs are not subject to licensing regulations or oversight, so the onus is placed on parents to ensure the safety of the facilities. License-exempt care must comply with health and fire codes, though these programs self-report rather than undergo inspections. Exempt preschools must also provide parents with information regarding staff qualifications, staff-to-children ratios, curricula (including religious teachings), and discipline procedures. By 2017, the number of unlicensed facilities will be reduced due to a federal law that requires the monitoring of centers that serve low-income families who receive subsidies, though a substantial number of unlicensed centers will still remain in operation.
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