Spruill is owner of McClellan Center for Child Development, a day care center in Anniston that served 170 children as late as August. When the school year started, his older kids, ages 4 or 5, disappeared into free public day care, he said. Unable to make ends meet, he shut the center on Nov. 22.
"We can't compete with free," he said. "That's why we had to close."
Spruill isn't the only day care owner who has had to shut his doors in recent years. According to a study released Monday by the nonprofit Alabama Partnership for Children, the number of licensed or officially regulation-exempt child care centers in the state dropped from 4,173 in 2002 to 3,158 in 2011, or by nearly 25 percent. The number of kids five years old or younger in the state climbed by 3 percent over the same time — from about 355,000 to a little more than 365,000. Experts can't single out one reason for the decline in the number of day care centers.
"All we know for sure is that the number has fallen," said Keivan Deravi, an economist at Auburn University at Montgomery and an author of the study.
Deravi joined early-childhood education advocates in a Montgomery press conference to launch his study, which focused primarily on the economic impact of Alabama's child-care industry. About 65 percent of Alabama children five years old and under are from families where all available parents are in the workforce. Childcare allows those parents to work, Deravi said, while providing jobs for around 19,000 child care workers.
In all, the industry generates around $1 billion for the state's economy, Deravi estimates. Speakers at the press conference cited that number as they called on the public and policymakers to pay more attention to child care, which they said entails more than just babysitting.
"The social value of this service had not been priced right by the market," Deravi said.
The study included some cruel numbers, as well. The average day care employee made only $19,000 per year, with administrators' salaries figured into the average. A year of day care for an infant can cost a family nearly $16,000 per year, around twice the annual cost of tuition for a full-time student at Jacksonville State. The number of day care centers statewide has dropped by about 100 per year.
Quentin Spruill said he sold his 25,000-square-foot building to a nonprofit day care operation on Monday. McClellan Center for Child Development had about 90 kids when Spruill bought the center, a number that nearly doubled over the summer. But the start of the school year found parents taking their older kids to free pre-K programs at Saks and Weaver, he said.
Caring for the smaller kids is expensive, he said, and day care centers need older kids to break even.
"You make enough money off of your preschool kids so you can fund the ones you have in the nursery," he said. Now even his older kids won't have a place to go, he said, when summer comes.
"At the beginning of the school year, the parents said 'we'll see you next summer,' and we said we won't be here," he said.
Charlene Hill, special education director at Calhoun County Schools, said both Saks and Weaver have federally-funded pre-K programs that are evenly split between kids with disabilities and kids without. Those programs have been around for years, she said, though some of Spruill’s families may have just qualified for the program.
"We're always hearing from parents that there aren't enough spaces in day care," Hill said. "I'm always really surprised when one closes."
But they do close. Gail Piggott, executive director of the Alabama Partnership for Children, said keeping a day care afloat — much less one that provides a quality education — is hard. Among other things, she said, child care centers have to maintain a certain ratio of teachers to kids, while working in a business with a higher turnover rate than the fast food industry.
"When one person gets the flu, you have to say, we can't take these children," she said.
Piggott said a decade of tightening regulations has led some child care operations to leave the business. Some couldn't meet U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition standards put in place nearly a decade ago. Some couldn't meet tightened state regulations on the number of kids per child care worker, she said.
Still, Piggott's organization isn't backing down on its drive for high standards. She acknowledged that tightened rules may have pushed some parents toward church and in-home day care operations that are unregulated and cheaper.
"I'm not saying the unregulated ones are bad," she said. "I'm saying it's scary not to know."
Piggott and Deravi both said that the state's free pre-K program — which now reaches only about 6 percent of the state's four-year-olds — probably wasn't big enough to drive significant numbers of day care centers out of business.
But Piggott and others are pushing to expand the program to serve every child in the state within 10 years, and Piggott acknowledged that the transition could be a tricky one for existing day care providers. She said that's why the state has tried to help existing child care centers become providers of free pre-K.
"It doesn't help to take the kids from where they are and move them to pre-K," she said. "The plan is to go where the children are."
That may be cold comfort to Spruill, who said he was providing a good service for a reasonable price.
"We were a good center," he said. "The parents said they were sorry that they had to leave, but $130 a week was a lot out of their budgets."
Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.