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Child care providers rally at the legislature for stabilization funding

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Federal child care relief funding runs out in less than seven weeks. Hundreds of providers, parents, and advocates showed up at the North Carolina legislature Thursday to call for emergency funding to replace it.

Without intervention, about 20% of the state’s child care facilities are at risk of closing within a year afterward, a survey of providers in February found.

Advocates are asking for a one-time $300 million allocation to extend grants that providers have been receiving through federal funding since 2021 and that end on June 30. Child Care for North Carolina: United for Change, a coalition of organizations, child care program owners and administrators, and educators across the state, hosted the event.

“That’s just enough to keep our doors open at the end of June, until we can figure out a better plan,” said Emma Biggs, director of Pathway Preschool Center in Charlotte and a member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA).

The funding is running out across the country, and facilities are struggling to survive the post-pandemic realities of providing child care. Some states have stepped in to create public funding streams or extend stabilization funding. In states that have not, care has become more expensive and less accessible.

In North Carolina, almost 30% of providers responding to the same survey in February said they expect to close at some point after that funding ends, which the survey estimates will affect more than 90,000 children. Almost 90% of respondents said they expect to increase tuition.

“We want spaces for children,” Courtney Alexander, a child care fellow with NDWA and a provider in Charlotte, told the crowd on Thursday. “We want spaces for families. We want a fair living wage. Behind every statistic about program closures and cutbacks are real stories of care workers forced to choose between a career they love and their financial stability.”

‘A mass exodus’

Laterria Lassiter, a former owner of a home-based child care program in Charlotte, is one of those workers who felt she had to leave the industry.

“I don’t want anyone to have to go through what I had to go through when I closed,” Lassiter said.

She said she shut her doors because she could not make the finances work. During the first year of operating her program, she said, she expected to lose some money. “I saw it as a start-up,” she said. “Any business, you’re going to have a loss and a small profit for the first year, but it continued like that. It never changed.”

Most child care providers are operating on less than a 1% profit margin, according to economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. They are stuck between reducing costs and raising fees with the knowledge that teachers won’t stay for less and families can’t afford more.

“I could see that the parents were struggling themselves, and I just didn’t know how to make that balance, with making them pay, when everybody was going through a crisis,” Lassiter said.

Most programs used the federal stabilization grants to increase teacher compensation so they could keep their staff. The median child care teacher wage was $13.99 an hour in May 2023, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As the grants run out, providers are left with a gap in their budgets.

“If we go back on pay, we know we’re gonna have a mass exodus of educators,” Biggs said.

‘If we don’t have child care, then we can’t work’

Many of the signs and speeches at the rally referenced the economic impacts of child care.

“We the people are asking for a sustainable infrastructure, the backbone of the economy,” said Marilyn Bernabe, director of strategic initiatives at Rockingham County Partnership for Children. “The infrastructure in place is not working. The government should step up and do everything they can to save this industry because it is a cornerstone in this country’s economy.”

Luke Stockhausen, a parent who came to the rally from Durham, said he and his wife started looking for a child care slot during the first trimester of his wife’s pregnancy.

“It didn’t make sense for my wife and I to not work, and it was a struggle,” Stockhausen said. “If we don’t have good child care, you’re gonna lose a percentage of the workforce.”

Mary Ryan, and her son Oliver. Liz Bell/EducationNC

He showed up to support the teachers of the program his son attends, Branches Community School in Durham, he said.

“We’re here to support the teachers,” he said. “We’re here to support making sure that good child care is accessible to everyone. We think that it should be a priority for society overall to take care for our young ones.”

Mary Ryan, another parent from Durham, described a similar experience finding child care, adding her son to multiple waitlists and feeling lucky to access care as her maternity leave ended.

“If we don’t have child care, then we can’t work,” Ryan said.

She took off work to attend the rally with the staff of Kate’s Korner, where her son is now enrolled.

“It’s only one day,” Ryan said. “What’s going to happen if there isn’t consistent child care? What will that mean for my ability to keep my job? My husband’s ability to keep his job? It’s important for me to be here.”

‘I don’t feel seen’

Advocates asked for the same amount, $300 million, during last year’s legislative session, without success.

Instead, legislators allocated recurring funds ($32 million in the first year of the biennium and $43 million in the second) to raise the rates child care programs receive to participate in the subsidy program.

Legislators also gave $900,000 for each year of a two-year pilot in 14 counties called Tri-Share, a program that splits the cost of child care between participating employers, eligible employees, and the state.

At the rally Thursday, advocates asked for immediate action.

“Don’t waste a dozen years like you did with Medicaid expansion,” said Steve Luking, a physician from Rockingham County who is also running for the state Senate seat in District 26, currently occupied by Senate leader Phil Berger. “Our families cannot wait that long. Our child care workers need improved wages. Our families need more affordable services. And our owners and operators need the financial support of the state to survive this crisis. It’s all a matter of priorities.”

Advocates chanted “Care can’t wait,” in response to speakers’ remarks. Liz Bell/EducationNC

Lassiter, the provider from Charlotte who had to close her program, has moved on to an advocacy role at MDC, a nonprofit research firm in Durham. She is coordinating advocacy among providers from across the state.

She feels lucky, she said, to have found another way to support her seven children. But she still wishes she could be providing care.

“It was never my desire to close,” she said. “I still get emotional about it.”

She said she showed up Thursday with a hope that others can stay in the field. She remembers when a licensing consultant told her all of the information about her facility will be taken down from the state’s database, she said.

“When I look, there’s no record of me ever being there,” she said. “I don’t feel seen.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.