How The Nicholson Foundation Has Worked to Bring Quality Infant and Toddler Care to NJ Families


Birth to three years is the crucial developmental stage in which the building blocks for a person’s life-long health and well-being are laid down.  This is why, for the past decade, The Nicholson Foundation has made it a priority to improve access to affordable, quality infant and toddler care and education in New Jersey, while also encouraging a supportive policy agenda to help advance those goals.  This latest entry in Our Legacy Series describes how we have pursued this work and what we’ve achieved.

The case for quality care – and the barriers to it

While working to improve New Jersey’s social service and healthcare systems during The Nicholson Foundation’s first 10 years (2002-2012), staff became increasingly drawn to the potential of early childhood education as a means to prevent social ills before they manifest.  As a growing body of research showed, development during the early years is key to future success in school, in work, and in life.  That’s because the brain grows and develops faster between birth and age 3 than at any other time of life. During this time, the capacity for thinking, emotion, language, and self-regulation are formed. 

Unfortunately, quality child care for infants and toddlers can be hard to find in many parts of the state. Forty percent of New Jersey communities are “child care deserts,” where there isn’t enough quality infant and toddler child care to meet families’ needs. High cost too is frequently a problem—particularly for parents of very young children.   At the same time, the child care provider workforce has been poorly compensated for years. The majority of infant and toddler educators and family child care providers—40% of whom are women of color—earn poverty level wages and more than half rely on public benefits.

Laying the research groundwork As a first step, the Foundation funded a series of groundbreaking studies and reports to shed light on the issues facing the early childhood care and education industry in New Jersey, including:

  • A 2013 National Institute for Early Education Research study that examined the quality of early childhood care and education centers, Early Head Start centers, and family child care services.
  • Studies that Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ) conducted between 2013 and 2018 that identified and analyzed barriers to quality and accessible early childhood care and education.
  • A 2017 New Jersey Policy Perspective study on the subsidy rates that help low-income families pay for care.
  • ​The 2018 New Jersey Family Child Care Landscape Report, a comprehensive review of family child care and the policy and programmatic changes that could improve these services.​

Building a comprehensive quality rating system

To boost the quality of early child care and education in New Jersey, The Nicholson Foundation played a key role in the development of Grow NJ Kids, the statewide quality rating and improvement system (QRIS) for child care. Pioneered in other states, QRIS’s serve to both link parents to available quality care and spur providers to improve the quality of what they offer. Through QRIS, trained raters visit child care providers and evaluate them on a number of aspects of care. Center ratings range from one to five stars, with incentives and support to help them make the changes that will lead to a higher level of quality.

In 2013, the Foundation funded a series of pilots to help jump start a statewide QRIS. In 2014, New Jersey began to test drive Grow NJ Kids in three counties. Foundation support for the community-based organization, Programs for Parents, underwrote the establishment of Grow NJ Kids in 16 early childhood care and education centers in Newark’s lowest income neighborhoods. In addition, from 2014 to 2018, the Foundation supported Steps to Quality, a parallel quality improvement project for family child care providers. This project became the foundation for incorporating family child care into Grow NJ Kids. A final component of Grow NJ Kids went into effect in 2018—a tiered reimbursement system that bases compensation to providers who receive subsidy payments on the level of quality of their programs and services.

Making the case for public support

As of 2018, 69% of New Jersey mothers with children younger than age 6 were in the workforce, which underscores the importance of quality child care to both to children’s future development and the economy. However, attention and public funding streams to early years care has always lagged what school-aged children receive.

To change this dynamic, The Nicholson Foundation and the Turrell Fund have partnered over the years on a number of initiatives designed to educate the public, policymakers, and other stakeholders about the importance of care for infant and toddlers and the need to improve New Jersey’s earliest education system.

The foundations first supported an ACNJ initiative called Right From the Start NJ, designed to inform state government staff and policymakers about the importance of supporting infant and toddler care. In 2017, Right From the Start NJ expanded into a public outreach campaign including social media channels, a website, and a partnership with the Caucus Educational Corporation to produce content for public television. The communications campaign aimed to generate broad public awareness of the crucial developmental period from birth to age three and boost support for greater public investment in the early years.

In response to the devastating toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on the child care landscape—which caused more losses for many already struggling providers and forced some to close permanently—Nicholson and Turrell launched a new campaign in 2020 called Reimagine Child Care. The campaign activated more than 1,000 advocates. The #ReimagineChildCare Twitter messaging campaigns alone resulted in 670,000 impressions in six months.

Carrying Forward

Now that there is an infrastructure in place, there is reason to be hopeful that this new funding will ensure that more children receive quality care. Earlier investments The Nicholson Foundation made in partnership with state government agencies, ACNJ, the National Institute on Early Education Research at Rutgers, the NJ Association for the Education of Young Children, and others, will continue to inform decision-makers about key issues relating to care and education for New Jersey’s youngest children long after the Foundation closes its doors at the end of 2021.

At the same time, to ensure that philanthropic support continues to guide progress in this area, the Foundation helped shape the Early Years Funding Collaborative, a coalition of eight New Jersey foundations focused on children ages 0 to 8 and their families.

The goal of all of this work is to make quality early child care and education more equitable, affordable, and accessible for families across New Jersey, and help the next generation have the strongest possible start to a healthy life.