For years North Carolina legislators on both sides of the aisle, business leaders, and early childhood advocates have emphasized the powerful role that quality, affordable preschool education plays in supporting healthy development, family stability, and community economic well-being.
Yet, too often, the rhetoric has not translated into the investment necessary to build an early childhood education system that supports children, families and educators.
The first legislative response to the COVID-19 pandemic provides another example of this problem. Rather than tap into available federal Coronavirus Relief Funds to fully support early childhood education, North Carolina legislators allocated federal funds only from the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which limited their reach and fell short of addressing the need.
The first legislative package provides $166 million to child care and child care response (an initiative to help families frontline workers) from federal funds dedicated to this purpose. But only an additional fraction of a $19 million line item for multiple services providers will likely be allocated in the child-care response.
This figure is unlikely to sustain even the existing commitments by the Department of Health and Human Services — important efforts to provide hazard pay and support to families — through Phase 3 of reopening the state. This amount is insufficient to meet the full need for investments in health and sanitation measures, and for stabilization grants and small business supports to child care providers whose reopening is critical to ensuring access to early childhood education in many communities.
One third of child-care centers in North Carolina have reported that it will be difficult for them to reopen — even when it is safe to do so — without public support. Closures of child care providers risk increasing the state’s already real limits on access to early childhood programs. Estimates suggest that 144,000 child-care slots are at risk in North Carolina alone.
Even as another federal boost to child care funding is being considered, the North Carolina General Assembly should commit available federal and state funds at a higher level to the explicit purpose of strengthening the early education system in the state. After all, our state’s early childhood system will be essential to the strength of our economic recovery.
The failure to invest doesn’t just jeopardize the health and safety of early childhood educators, particularly in the near-term, as Phase 1 of reopening will immediately affect child care centers. It also puts at risk the quality and accessibility of our state’s nationally recognized early childhood system and the ability for the state to secure a strong recovery that supports the resiliency of families and communities.
North Carolina’s second legislative package to address the COVID-19 outbreak must begin to recognize that our early childhood system’s successful recovery requires focusing on the fact that those who care for our youngest children earn some of the lowest wages and must often make do without health care insurance or paid sick days.
It should be clear now that we cannot revert to an early education system built on parent-paid tuition and low wages and benefits for early childhood educators.
It also should be a priority to stabilize high quality child care centers and family-home centers that are operating in child care deserts and serving families with financial need. These providers should be supported with grants that allow them to stay in business as children slowly return to child care and as the economic recovery takes hold.
But our legislators shouldn’t be content to merely patch the holes through the initial crisis; they should embrace solutions that strengthen the system for the long-term. That means envisioning an early childhood system that delivers services and commits public funding to maintain an infrastructure of early childhood education in every community that is accessible to all children, regardless of their family’s income.