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What's next? One child care provider's moment of limbo

'After 18 months, I’ll have to decide if things are still the same'

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Michelle Chambers, owner and director of A+ Child Care and Learning Center, is using the next 18 months to decide if she should close her doors after 27 years. Liz Bell/EducationNC

I feel honored to share the story this week of Michelle Chambers, owner and director of A+ Child Care and Learning Center in Monroe. I spent a day in October talking with Chambers about her journey to early education and her questions of what’s next.

I spoke with Chambers and teachers next to empty cribs. Chambers’ most recent pandemic blow was having to close her infant room after a state consultant told her it no longer made financial sense. She was having to borrow money to pay the teacher’s salary. She had also lost four teachers and half her enrollment since the start of the pandemic.

After 27 years building the center from the ground up, Chambers had made the painful call to close her doors a couple months before my visit. Two weeks later, she heard about the state’s roll-out of federal 18-month relief grants.

“After 18 months, I’ll have to decide if things are still the same, and if I have to close my doors,” she said.

Chambers got into the field after working as a behavior management technician with the public school system. She would knock on families’ doors to  communicate about discipline issues,  priding herself in the trust she developed in the community. When she started noticing those visits were for children who were younger and younger, she started “soul searching.”

“I wanted to reach them and mold them so it wouldn’t be a shock when they went to kindergarten,” she said.

Past this moment of relief, a combination of federal and state policymaking will influence the decisions of Chambers and thousands like her — and the well-being of children, families, and businesses. North Carolina would receive about $3.34 billion in the next three years in federal funds if the Build Back Better legislation makes it to the finish line. But states would have to opt in and provide matching funds to implement the initiatives.

Spend some time with Chambers’ story here. Thank you for reading.


Early years at the GA: Updates from the legislature

The state budget left out two big funding asks from early education advocates: to expand educator wage supplements from the WAGE$ program and to establish a statewide floor rate for the subsidy program.

“We are most disappointed to see the lack of funding for early educators,” reads a statement from the North Carolina Early Education Coalition. “Child care teachers are the workforce behind the workforce, and they have been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis since day one. North Carolina is facing an unprecedented workforce crisis due to poverty-level wages, and professional compensation is needed now to attract and retain a high-quality workforce.”

The budget provided these requirements for how the Division of Child Development and Early Education spends $502 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds: 

  • $274 million to support families on the child care subsidy waitlist, to cover parents’ fees through December 2021, and to modernize licensing and subsidy management technology.
  • $207.7 million to “build the supply of qualified child care teachers” through bonuses and other teacher pipeline programs like apprenticeships, stackable courses, and fast-track programs.
  • $16 million in the federal Child Care Entitlement to States grant, which, unless designated, becomes part of the child care subsidy assistance program.

The budget allocates another $20 million in federal funds to cover start-up costs for new child care centers and NC Pre-K classrooms, with a priority on adding facilities in child care deserts and high-poverty areas. The funds can also be used for increasing program quality and capacity.

The budget increases the rate the state pays child care centers for NC Pre-K slots by 2% in each of the next two fiscal years. It’s the intent of the legislature that these extra funds be used “to address disparities in teacher salaries among teachers working in child care centers versus those working in public schools or Head Start centers.”

The budget gives an additional $10 million in recurring funds in each of the next two years to Smart Start, the statewide network of local partnerships that administer early childhood funds and programs.


Early Bird reads: What we’re writing

In limbo: A longtime child care provider wonders what’s next

The pandemic has put health, financial, and staffing strains on child care providers like Michelle Chambers. The stabilization funds will be enough to keep her center open for now, she said.

Yet there were serious financial problems in child care long before the pandemic, and recovery funds aren’t enough to fix them. Chambers was already navigating an industry many describe as a failure of the private market: The cost of care is too high for parents to afford, but not high enough to pay teachers reasonable wages.

This is “a market failure that cries out for policy solutions,” said John Lumpkin, president of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation in a news conference of business leaders last month. “Now, for our children’s sake, and to protect the future of our nation and our state, we just need to get it done.”


Your take, for goodness sake: EdNC perspectives

Perspective | What does educational justice look like in early care and education?

“It’s about soil, seeds, bridges, and real talk,” writes Lisa Finaldi, community engagement leader for the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation.

“That’s how Kate Goodwin talks about her work as the owner of Kate’s Korner Learning Center in Durham. Her own journey as a parent propelled her to focus on racial equity in child care, serving as a catalyst for educational justice, not only in her center, but also in her community.

“Her inspiration came from Walter Gilliam, Yale professor who leads the research around implicit bias in early childhood education, focusing on the expulsion rate. And it comes every day from the children she teaches and cares for as she supports, protects, and cultivates their social, emotional, physical, and academic development and gifts.”


In other early learning news: What I’m reading


Research & Resources: Let's talk potential child care cost drops

The Hunt Institute has another helpful resource as we unpack what the federal Build Back Better package — passed by the U.S. House last month — could mean for early care and education (after the organization’s explainer on the legislation’s components).

This calculator estimates what child care would cost under the proposal depending on a family’s location, size, and income. You can find estimates on how much parents would have to pay monthly and yearly, as well as when that eligibility would start.

The six-year package would subsidize child care like never before, ensuring the majority of families pay no more than 7% of their annual income. It would also establish universal pre-K for 3- and  4-year-olds.

The legislation still must pass the Senate and be signed by President Biden to take effect. States would also play a role in opting in and providing matching funds. This piece from think tank People’s Policy Project says passing the proposal “only gets us half of the way to enacting the pre-k and childcare plans.”
Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.