American child care has long been a broken system, despite being a critical backbone of the nation’s economy and education.
When COVID hit and K-12 schools closed, many child care providers — suddenly deemed essential — kept their doors open. The federal government directed billions of dollars to the sector, and providers hoped the crisis would lead society to value them more and rethink the fragmented system.
But they’re still waiting for real change, as the expiration date on COVID-relief funds nears with no solution.
Against that backdrop, four experts discussed the issues behind America’s child care crisis and potential solutions during a session at the Education Writer Association’s 2023 National Seminar in Atlanta. They also shared tips for journalists covering the topic.
Deepa Fernandes, co-host of “Here & Now” for WBUR and NPR, moderated the June 2 panel. She was joined by Miriam Calderón, chief policy officer of Zero to Three; Chrishana Lloyd, a research scholar for Child Trends; Cynthia Osborne, founder and executive director of the Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center; and Helene Stebbins, the executive director of the Alliance for Early Success.
Understanding the History of Early Care and Education
Before diving into the complexities of American child care and looking for solutions, Lloyd suggests starting with the history of early care and education.
That’s what led Lloyd’s team at Child Trends to write “Mary Pauper: A Historical Explanation of Early Care and Education Compensation, Policy, and Solutions.”
Over the four months Lloyd’s team spent researching and writing the landmark paper, one finding became increasingly clear: American child care is inextricably linked to the institution of slavery.
Before and during the enslavement process, Black women were forced to perform domestic work like child care, Lloyd said. White people, meanwhile, benefitted from the country’s strengthened economy.
“This institution really has maintained the economic advancement of our country for centuries,” she said.
Today, the work continues to rest on the backs of women of color. And the underlying racism from the days of slavery remains.
“Domestic and care work, particularly child care, has been and continues to be a profession that, like Black women, is viewed negatively and disrespected,” she wrote in the paper. “As a result, the child care field is rife with racialized and gendered economic discrimination and exploitation.”
Follow the Money
Perhaps the biggest cause of the child care conundrum is that little public funding is funneled into the system — a direct contrast to K-12 education.
The money in the child care sector comes from three sources, Calderón said. The vast majority comes from the tuition and other fees parents pay providers. The next largest source of funding comes from the federal government, and the smallest portion comes from the state.
As Stebbins put it, “This is about money. At the end of the day, we’re talking about investments in something, and do we prioritize this or don’t we?”
Many parents struggle to afford the high costs of sending their children to a high-quality daycare. The national average annual price of child care in 2022 was $10,853, according to a Child Care Aware analysis. That amounts to about 10% of a married couple’s median income, or over 30% for a single parent.
Meanwhile, providers are often barely able to make ends meet. Labor costs can account for more than 80% of a provider’s expenses, according to this year’s Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Book. However, because caregiver-to-child ratios are mandated by law to ensure safety, there is little room to adjust that cost.
On top of it all, providers struggle to recruit and retain teachers who grapple with low, stagnant wages. The national average hourly wage for child care workers was $14.22 in May 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
COVID-relief funds improved the situation, Calderón said, by allowing providers to bolster wages and cover elevated operation costs during the pandemic. But those funds expire in September, Calderón said, and there’s currently no plan in place to replace or sustain even some of that funding.
WIthout that extra relief money, providers are telling Calderón they’re concerned they won’t be able to continue operating. Many are worried that if they have to raise tuition, they won’t be able to stay competitive, and they might not be able to recruit and retain staff, she said.
In today’s fast-paced news cycle, Lloyd urged education journalists to use as much context and historical nuance as possible. “We’ve got to get back to a place where there’s some depth of exploration of these issues because they’re systemic,” she said.
Other panelists emphasized that each state and locality handles early childhood and child care differently. Do your research.
Think about early childhood education like K-12
During the pandemic, Calderón noticed key differences in the way the media talked about K-12 and early childhood education. When K-12 schools were closed, stories often focused on disrupted learning. If child care providers were closed, Calderón said stories tended to center on people not being able to work.
“This is a two-generation benefit,” Calderón said. “Children benefit. It impacts their learning and development. And it helps adults go to work, just like the K-12 system.”
Take time to listen
Especially if you’re starting a new beat or have relocated to a new community, Fernandes recommends building in a week or two to listen to the community. Even if your editor wants you to hit the ground running, listening is critical to covering such a complicated issue at the local level, Fernandes said.
To find families and providers, Lloyd recommended reaching out to your local Child Care Resource Referral (CCR&R) agency.
- Enrollment: Has enrollment at your local school district’s pre-K programs returned to pre-pandemic levels? Why or why not? If enrollment is low, where are the children going instead?
- Staffing shortages: Is your district struggling to recruit and retain staff amid workforce shortages?
- Logistics: Are the program times inconvenient for working parents?
- Solutions: Are there any child care centers that have found success in retaining teachers, such as increasing pay?
- Funding: What will happen when COVID-relief funding for child care providers runs out? How will that impact families, and how are providers preparing?
- Compare and contrast: How does your state’s early childhood landscape, policies, and progress compare to others? Check out the Alliance for Early Success’ state-by-state profiles and progress reports.
Sami West covers education for KUOW, Seattle’s NPR station.