Oftentimes, at the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation, we talk about how important it is to have good child care as it pertains to supporting brain development in children, enabling parents to work, and the necessity to compensate early childhood educators for the valuable care and education they offer these children and their families, to keep the backbone of our economy running.
But, through our partnerships and listening sessions across 34 North Carolina counties with the Care and Learning (CandL) Coalition, we have learned that even defining quality child care is even more complicated than that. Quality child care is defined by four key components: trust, affordability, availability, and care falling on women.
Before we can make policy recommendations according to what is truly best for families and providers, we must first understand the barriers and facilitators to child care from the voices of parents and providers and that’s what we have been a part of since February 2022.
Throughout this period, we talked to over 500 parents, caregivers, and early childhood education (ECE) providers in Alamance, Avery, Buncombe, Burke, Cabarrus, Cherokee, Clay, Craven, Cumberland, Durham, Forsyth, Gaston, Graham, Guilford, Halifax, Hartnett, Henderson, Hertford, Lenoir, Madison, McDowell, Mecklenburg, New Hanover, Pitt, Polk, Richmond, Robeson, Rutherford, Swain, Wake, Watauga, Waye, and Wilson counties. Data from Jackson and Onslow is still forthcoming.
Our key objective, and that of CandL, is to move towards a publicly funded system in NC, where ECE is a public good and is equitable, culturally responsive, and relevant to parents, teachers, and providers.
It is well known that both our nation and North Carolina are facing a child care crisis. Parents, caregivers, and providers emphasized the importance of trust, affordability, and availability in child care, across all county listening sessions. We shared what we learned in a presentation, with The Link Group, a research firm that analyzed the data for CandL, in May 2023:
Quality child care is defined by trust
Across the state, the thing that stood out, above all, was trust. Parents and caregivers want to be sure that their children are learning in a nurturing environment and providers want to create that nurturing environment for their children and parents. The problem is that how this trust comes to exist doesn’t always align with how the state may define trust and quality, which creates a disconnect for both parents and providers.
Barriers to child care trust include:
- Availability of, and accessibility to, in-home or the care of children by relatives or close family friends
- STAR ratings creating an inequitable system for both parents and providers
- Representation and diversity of children within the classroom
- Lack of a centralized portal with information about childcare and parent resources
Trust shows up in many ways, such as:
- Passionate, loving teachers
- Well-trained providers
- Specialized training
- Reputation of provider
- Reliability of child care
- Providing and connecting resources
- Representation and diversity – parents want to see themselves and their child represented by the provider
Some recommendations to address trust:
- Lower barriers to entry to allow more availability of in-home and kin care providers.
- Allow voucher use for in-home and kin-care providers at the same rate and allowance as traditional centers to create more equity in access.
- Lower barriers and burden for these providers to access STAR ratings and STAR funding.
- Re-examine how “quality” is defined in STAR so that it better aligns with parents’ definition of quality (i.e., trust factors) to allow for more relevant and equitable ratings.
- Provide funding to help centers earn STAR ratings, particularly around staffing retention and training.
Quality child care is defined by affordability
Child care affordability is a key barrier to access in nearly every NC county. The high cost is often the determining factor of whether a parent – most often the mother – can work or not. For those working, child care tuition eats up a significant portion of the paycheck. Few parents may mention sacrificing food or shelter for child care, these prohibitive costs do mean that parents may often sacrifice other bills or pursuing other dreams, careers, and goals, to keep work that pays their child care bills. A typical family in North Carolina would have to spend 33.0% of its income on child care for an infant and a 4-year-old.
Barriers to affordability include:
- The high cost of child care that impacts parents’ ability to work and to become financially stable
- An outdated and ineffective voucher system
- The use of STAR ratings to allocate funding to providers or set child care pricing
- Availability of child care centers hinging on grant opportunities
Some recommendations to address affordability:
- Raise awareness to legislators and policymakers about the cost of child care and the impact those costs have on families and the economic opportunity cost on the state.
- Find opportunities to lower the cost of child care across the board, whether through expanded use of vouchers or through a publicly funded system.
- Allow child care providers and centers to work together, rather than competing with one another, to create more equity and stability in child care costs.
- Remove the social stigma associated with vouchers so that more people are comfortable with applying for them. Increase education around voucher availability and qualification.
Quality child care is defined by availability
The child care shortage is driven by a lack of child care centers and facilities, staff shortages, which then fuel long wait lists, and wait times for child care, both for facility and in-home care. In addition, the lack of non-traditional hours offered by providers limits accessibility for parents who work early mornings or late nights or who just need part time care.
Barriers to availability include:
- Staffing shortages and high turnover within the child care industry
- Long waiting lists for child care centers, which adds stress and limits employment options for parents
- Long distances to and/or from centers, resulting in long transportation time
- Lack of non-traditional hours at a child care center
- Lack of a centralized portal with information about childcare and parent resources
Many things drive child care provider shortages, such as:
- Providers are passionate about what they do. It takes a special person to provide the level of trust, education, and love that children need to thrive. It can be a challenge to find these special people to fully staff a center.
- Providers play a crucial role within a community, as they are the central “hub” for information sharing, education preparedness, and economic development.
- The provider role is underappreciated.
- Providers often feel overwhelmed.
- Providers are undervalued.
- Staffing shortages create extremely long waiting lists, which create stress and frustration for parents, as it limits their employment opportunities.
Some recommendations to address availability:
- Elevate the role and importance of the child care provider within the community and demonstrate the value that they bring: providing a foundational education before formal school, acting as a central hub for sharing information within the community, providing emotional support to parents and children, and developing the economy of a community.
- Provide mental health support and resources to providers.
- Provide access to relevant trainings, which directly tie to the individual needs providers have in the classroom.
- Provide comparable benefits to public school teachers, including health insurance and retirement.
- Increase the wages for providers, compensating them appropriately for the value they provide to the community.
Quality child care relies on women.
The responsibility of child care and ECE falls disproportionately on women, which has major implications on their financial independence and ability to pursue their dreams. Gender inequities in wage gaps and career progress continue. This also furthers racial disparities as the burden of care often relies upon a care workforce of predominantly Black and brown women.
CandL Continues into Phase 2
Next, we take these insights into policy recommendations. Want to stay updated on the work of the CandL Coalition? Subscribe to the CandL newsletter.
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The NC Early Childhood Foundation is driven by a bold – and achievable – vision: Each North Carolina child has a strong foundation for life-long health, education, and well-being supported by a comprehensive, equitable birth-to-eight ecosystem. We build understanding, lead collaboration, and advance policies to ensure each North Carolina child is on track for lifelong success by the end of third grade.