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Perspective | Not enough velocity in K-12, child care

The federal government’s monthly jobs report serves as a mile-marker to assess the velocity of the national economy. But behind the headline-making unemployment rate and overall job-growth data, the report issued a week ago also contains signs to alert North Carolina to its still-steep road ahead in child care and K-12 schooling.

Employment in child care services took a deep dive through 2020 as the contagious coronavirus swept across the nation. Jobs in this sector have rebounded through 2021, but remain more than 10% below the pre-pandemic peak.

Even as students returned to the classrooms this fall, public schools have had to cope with shortages of bus drivers, substitute teachers, and athletic coaches. Employment in the education sector still falls about 5% below its pre-pandemic level.

The road ahead presents both short-term and longer-term imperatives. An economic recovery won’t be complete without schools and child care facilities staffed sufficiently to make up for the disruption to young people’s developmental and learning timetables — and to allow more than a million women to return to the workforce. What’s more, inadequate pay stands in the way of producing a sustainable supply of highly qualified educators and staffs.

Bloomberg Businessweek recently termed child care “the most broken business in America.” Writing for a national business and investor audience, Claire Suddath of Bloomberg explored the clashing reality that child care workers make lower-than-retail earnings and yet child care costs are too expensive. Writing in, Liz Bell reported a parallel analysis of how the pandemic and “market failure” affect child care costs and access in North Carolina.

“Child care in the U.S. is the rare example of an almost entirely private market in which the service offered is too expensive for both consumers and the businesses that provide it,’’ Suddarth wrote.

“Today almost 70% of children under 6 in the U.S. live in a home where all available adults work,” she said. “Child care is so expensive—about 13% of the typical two-parent American family’s income and 36% of a single parent’s—it affects people’s ability to make a living.”

Meanwhile, the Southern Regional Education Board reports that “teacher raises of up to 10% in recent years likely aren’t enough to help curb teacher shortages.” On its compensation dashboard, SREB puts North Carolina average salaries “at or below the regional average,” which is 16% lower than the national average.

The Educational Policy Initiative at Carolina has published a brief on attrition of teachers and principals during the pandemic, finding that “fears of higher rates of educator attrition have not yet come to pass in North Carolina.”

“Although the decrease in attrition is positive for schools,” the EPIC researchers wrote, “it is important to note that the absence of attrition does not mean the absence of a problem. Educators are feeling stress and burn out and will need supports from district and state officials as North Carolina emerges from the pandemic.”

The new North Carolina budget, fashioned largely by the Republican legislative majority and signed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, uses the state’s overflow of revenue, fueled substantially by federal “rescue” funding, for a temporary increase in availability of child care subsidy, for recruiting more child care professionals, for bonuses for teachers and principals, and for grants to 95 counties to provide salary supplements for teachers.

And yet, the budget provides miniscule 1.3% increases in base teacher salaries for the current and next fiscal years — hardly making progress toward a sustained effort to offset the teacher shortage and attract a highly qualified and diverse cadre into the profession. As NC Child, a nonprofit policy and advocacy organization, reports, “Legislators did not raise the state’s child care subsidy rate, as widely requested by the early childhood community, or take other steps to raise wages or increase sustainable funding to the child care sector.”

In child care and K-12 schooling, sustained, competitive pay matters in employing well-qualified adults to enhance the lives and learning of North Carolina’s children. The state concludes a pandemic-clouded year in need of much more velocity for the road ahead.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.