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What can North Carolina learn from early childhood trends across the country?

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  • Without the federal #earlychildhood investments that advocates hoped for, "states are increasingly realizing that they're going to need to step in and stabilize this," says @DanWuori @Hunt_Institute. #nced
  • A @Hunt_Institute summit gathered leaders from every state to talk about the status of #earlychildhood care and education. EdNC asked the institute’s early learning team leaders how states are responding to key issues. #nced
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What are leaders from other states thinking — and doing — about early childhood workforce shortages and low compensation? About child care deserts, particularly for the youngest children?

EdNC interviewed early learning experts at the Hunt Institute, a nonprofit that educates state policymakers and governors on education policy issues, to find out. Last month, the institute hosted a national summit devoted to the most pressing issues in early care and education.

EdNC spoke with Dan Wuori, the institute’s senior director for early learning, and Karen McKnight and Lauren Zbyszinski, deputy directors of early learning, about takeaways from the summit of more than 400 state policymakers and national trends relevant to North Carolina’s youngest learners, families, and communities.

States can play a critical role

Most of the public funding for early childhood programs across the country comes from the federal government. In North Carolina, for example, about 80% of child care subsidy funds came from the federal government in 2019 (compared with 65% in 2008).

But without the early childhood investments that advocates hoped would come from Congress in the past year, Wuori said, states are recognizing their need to play a role in rescuing early childhood programs from collapse as federal stabilization funds run out.

“This has been, frankly, a challenging time,” Wuori said. “States are really grappling right now with … what’s going to happen after these are gone, and what responsibility do we have?” Wuori said. “I think states are increasingly realizing that they’re going to need to step in and stabilize this.”

In North Carolina, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) announced this week that the department will be sending financial support to early childhood programs through December 2023 to extend the federal stabilization funds running out next spring. These funds, which are part of discretionary funding DHHS received in the American Rescue Plan, must be used to boost teacher compensation.

Many early childhood providers, who still overwhelmingly depend on private tuition, have expressed concerned about keeping their doors open without the stabilization support.

Wuori pointed to the organization’s work with North Dakota, a state that is “recognizing that lack of child care access has an impact on workforce participation in the state and then ultimately, the productivity of employers and the profitability of businesses.”

Early childhood is distinctively bipartisan

McKnight and Wuori said the convening had representation from all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. That means officials from both red and blue states found it worthwhile to spend a couple days focused on early care and education.

“It’s easy to look at the national politics and think that we are just hopelessly polarized,” Wuori said. “On this particular topic, that’s definitely not the takeaway.”

A 2018 North Carolina poll reported 86% of Democrats and 66% of Republicans said the state should be doing more to support early care and education. In a December 2020 poll of eight swing states, including North Carolina, 86% of Democrats and 63% of Republicans said priority action should be taken to ensure all families have access to high-quality early care and learning options.

Alabama is an example of conservative leadership in early childhood policy, Wuori said. But the state used its stabilization funds to offer a $3,000 quarterly bonus to child care providers over the course of the year.

“We’ve got governors and state lawmakers, from red states and blue states and everywhere in between, who are really taking an interest in taking the lead on this topic,” Wuori said.

Whether it’s the economic case for early childhood investment, the academic importance of the early years, or a moral obligation to support children and families — “early childhood has something to appeal to everyone,” Wuori said.

Rethinking child care subsidy is key

Many states are reconsidering how to fund their child care subsidy programs, the Hunt team said.

They pointed to the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) Reauthorization Act of 2022, a bill filed by Republicans in Congress in March that is co-sponsored by Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina. The legislation would increase eligibility for more parents to get support in affording care, and would increase the rates that providers receive to hire well-qualified educators.

And across the country, states are looking at similar approaches. Though a federal program, states also contribute funds and can decide how much to pay providers serving children through the program.

“Setting those rates is kind of fundamentally broken historically,” Wuori said.

Those rates are based off market rate surveys. North Carolina released its 2021 survey results this month.

“That going rate is actually a much better indication of what parents can afford as opposed to what that service reasonably costs to deliver it in a high-quality way — and those market rates are also in most cases premised on the teachers making at or near minimum wage,” Wuori said.

The state Division of Child Development and Early Education is also researching the model through an outside group. More funding would be needed for higher subsidy rates for providers.

It all comes down to teachers

The Center for American Progress reported this month that the child care workforce has lost 88,000 jobs since the beginning of the pandemic, 8.4% of its workforce. Though other industries have recovered, the early childhood workforce has not.

Workforce needs were a focus at the summit. Wuori and McKnight said states are using the one-time stabilization federal funds to provide bonuses where they can.

But in many places, the system does not have as much space for children because of an inability to hire qualified staff and bounce back from reduced pandemic capacity.

“There’s this capacity of the child care industry on paper that is very much at odds right now with what the actual capacity is,” Wuori said.

Michigan’s legislature recently tried to expand eligibility of its subsidy program but did not see more families using the program because of this workforce issue, he said.

North Carolina’s early childhood workforce has seen an uptick since November of last year, when stabilization funds started being deployed to programs, going from 36,954 staff members at all licensed early childhood facilities to 39,667 in June, according to the DCDEE Early Care and Learning dashboard.

But with those stabilization funds running out next year, the stability of that workforce is unclear.

“We do need a continuously sustained workforce,” McKnight said. “And without more funding, it’s not going to happen.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.