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The state ‘child care crisis,’ the Transylvania ‘child care desert,’ and the impending ‘fiscal cliff’

An acute shortage of child care and preschool education in the county is draining workers from the economy and depriving children of academic preparation.

Khloe Bickford has decided once and for all that a career in child care is not for her.

She worked in the field for two years after graduating from Brevard High School in 2019. And last December, armed with a new associates degree in business administration, she signed on as an administrative assistant at the Kid City USA child care center on Wilson Road.

Former employee Khloe Bickford, left, with director Tracy Pace, at the Kid City USA child care center on Wilson Road. Photo courtesy of Dan DeWitt

Bickford likes the people there enough that, even after resigning in May to take a summer camp job, she returned to volunteer for several hours last week. The center adheres to requirements for “enhanced” staffing needed to achieve a top “5 Star” rating from the state. And she was able to negotiate her initial payment offer of $13 per hour up to $15.75.

Even so, she found the money “not up to par,” especially after staffing shortages forced her to help care for 1- and 2-year-olds.

“Not all those kids are potty trained. You have to imagine one person changing five diapers while also watching those other kids who are potty trained and off doing their own thing,” said Bickford, 23. “You have to be multiple people in yourself at one time.”

Experiences like hers are at the root of what is now routinely referred to as a “child care crisis” in North Carolina. They are why, even in this parched statewide landscape, parents and providers say, Transylvania County stands out as a “child care desert.”

Workers are fleeing the field because of high demands and a lack of appreciation combined with wages that have slipped behind those of even some fast food jobs.

Providers say they can’t afford to pay more because profits are almost nil, partly due to inadequate state reimbursements. They can’t make up the difference by raising rates for parents paying full fare because families with multiple children often spend more on child care than on housing.

Partly because of these factors, two of the largest locally-owned centers were recently sold to a franchisee of the Kid City USA chain. Enrollments at all the public and private child care facilities contacted for this story run well below their licensed capacity and maintain long waiting lists for admission.

The impacts are both economic and academic, both immediate and long-term.

By diminishing workforce participation, the shortage of child care drains $5.6 billion from the state economy in lost productivity and tax revenues, according to a new study from the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

Preschoolers deprived of emotional and learning skills provided by quality prekindergarten programs, are less prepared for school and, in the long run, careers, said Emily Nicholson, of the Land of Sky Regional Council, who calls child care employees “the workforce behind the workforce.”

And it’s a shortage about to become more acute.

North Carolina Child Care Stabilization Grants, backed by federal Covid-19-relief funds, have offered crucial subsidies to private providers since the program’s launch in 2021.

The program’s sunset has been called a “fiscal cliff” for the industry, and is expected to lead to higher tuition, reduced enrollment and the closure of nearly one-third of the centers statewide, according to a report from the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

This comes on the heels of a net loss of nearly five percent of North Carolina child care centers since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I think it would make people sick to know how many child care centers are shutting down across the state,” said Ashley Marlow, former owner of the Little Blessings Learning Center in Rosman.

Meanwhile, the Transylvania County Commission has rejected requests from Transylvania County Schools for the funding needed to either expand or maintain the number of slots for high-quality preschool education offered through NC Pre-K.

As recently as 2021, a range of public and private centers in the county received state money for as many as 155 NC Pre-K slots. The school district is now the sole provider of this program in Transylvania, said Audrey Reneau, whose duties for the district include directing early learning.

More than 175 children are on the list for admission to the program in the 2024-25 school year, while the school system — without additional funding from the county — plans to cut the number of classrooms from six to four and the total of available slots from 102 to 72, she said.

“That means 103 children on our waiting list will have nowhere to go.”

“No village”

Meg Lebeck’s daughters on their first day at New Adventure. Photo courtesy of Dan DeWitt

Or, more precisely, these children will likely end up in the patchwork of home and part-time care typically improvised by working parents unable to access reliable child care.

Which, they add, is a necessity in an era of increasing rates of single-parent homes and two-income families. “That’s the way the world works now,” said Nicholson, a mother as well as the executive director of Land of Sky’s P20 Council, which seeks to align education with the needs of the workforce.

Some parents report leaving jobs because they can’t find or can’t afford care. Others are confined to remote positions, dividing their attention between babies and work duties.

Once children find full-time slots, the care is generally excellent, parents say, an opinion supported by the state, which gives 4 Star or 5 Star ratings to almost all of the county’s centers based on metrics such as the number and education levels of its workers.

But because staffing often barely meets these requirements, services can be unreliable, with parents saying they live in expectation of predawn text messages informing them of class closures or early pickups prompted by the absence of even one employee.

“It was so precarious,” former Transylvania County School Board candidate Meg Lebeck said of service at a private center where one of her two young daughters was enrolled.

Spaces for infants — children younger than 1 year old — are in especially short supply because of the one-to-five staff ratios required to care for them, and Lebeck felt lucky to secure a place at the center for her younger daughter in 2022. But when staffing shortages forced it to close its infant room that October, her husband took a four-month leave from his job as an emergency responder.

“He came off a county ambulance,” said Lebeck, the director of an international nonprofit.

He returned to his job when the couple’s daughter was readmitted to the center after her first birthday, in February of last year, but they pulled her out in April because of the frequent disruptions.

The couple first hired a full-time nanny, and, when that proved too expensive, a live-in au pair from Argentina. Both their daughters have since been admitted to the county’s New Adventure Learning Center after a two-and-a-half-year wait, Lebeck said. But for the remainder of 2023, the girls were enrolled in half-day programs to provide both enrichment and a few hours of relief for their au pair.

Altogether, Lebeck said, “it cost us $43,000 for child care last year.”

The four-year-old son of Becky McCann, the city of Brevard’s communications coordinator, is now enrolled in the NC Pre-K class at Brevard Elementary School, she said, which “is why I was able to take this job.”

But she did so after a lack of infant care forced her to abandon a career in education and her husband to also take time off work. Before her son’s birth, McCann, who has a doctorate degree in English literature, commuted from Brevard to “an amazing job” as a middle-school teacher in Asheville, she said.

She put her son’s name on waiting lists when he was two weeks old, she said, only to find out that most parents had done so at the start of pregnancy. 

“I never intended to leave the workforce,” she said. “I quit my job because I didn’t have child care.”

Said another mother, Kayla Leed McKewen, “If you’re even thinking about having a baby, go ahead and get on a wait list, because otherwise you might go years without any care at all.”

McKewen, who works from home as an independent website designer, signed up at four locations when she was three months pregnant with her older daughter, born in August of 2022.

Initially, she was accepted for one day a week at the home of a nanny. This nanny gradually added time for the girl as she aged, and along with part-time service offered at a nearby center, McKewen was finally able to cover the work week with morning care when her daughter was 16 months old.

By then McKewen was pregnant with her second daughter and would have started her search all over if not for a call from a church informing her that a slot she had requested for her older daughter was finally available for her younger girl, now 3 months old.

But that care won’t start until late August, McKewen said, and in the meantime she must rely on cooperative agreements with other mothers of young children, the temporary help of a visiting sister, and care squeezed in between work duties.

“I keep her myself,” she said in a telephone interview last week as her baby cried in the background. “I arrange my schedule so I can kind of pause if she wakes up, if she’s crying.”

“They say that it takes a village to raise a child,” she said, but when it comes to reliable child care in Transylvania, “there is no village.”

The staffing crunch

Tracy Pace with a student. Photo courtesy of Dan DeWitt

Just how much care is available and how much more is needed to meet demand?

It was a lot even in 2022 when the shortage was less pronounced, according to the most recent comprehensive statewide report about infant and toddler care from the nonprofit Child Care Services Association. Slots for this age group were available for only 12 percent of the county’s working families, the report said, the 10th-lowest rate in the state.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services statistics on the subject are less definitive, both over- and under-representing the total number of child care slots available.

DHHS tracks only licensed facilities and not, for example, the programs at several local churches, which are allowed to provide part-day care without a state license.

At the 10 licensed homes and centers the department does track, its reports show a drop in capacity from 528 in 2022 to 427 currently, serving a county population of about 1,225 children younger than 5.

But the actual number of children served is likely significantly lower, based on enrollment numbers provided by local public and private centers. Because of challenges in recruiting and retaining teachers and assistants, for example, the Kid City center on Wilson Road, licensed for 74 slots, currently serves 47, said Tracy Pace, its longtime director.

Those numbers at New Adventure stand at 78 and 52 respectively, and, at the federally funded Early Head Start and Head Start program run by WNC Source, at 100 and 62.

The shortage of care is also reflected in the long waiting lists at all these centers. For some age groups at Kid City, Pace said, there are more children waiting than in classrooms — far more in the case of infants, for whom the waiting list is 12 and the enrollment is four.

“We are willing to offer eight slots (for infants) but we don’t have the staffing,” she said.

Lack of pay — and respect

Low pay for child care workers is clearly the primary reason for this staffing shortfall.

A 2022 needs assessment study published by nonprofit Smart Start of Transylvania County found that the average pay for local early childhood teachers, including those with years of experience, was $14.25.

That amount has since climbed, said center owners such as Jenny Mounivong, who runs 12 Kid City franchises across the state, including the location on Wilson Road and what was once Little Blessings in Rosman.

But while she has raised starting salaries and enhanced benefits, she said, the wages of competing entry-level jobs have also climbed.

“I could go to Chick-fil-A and be paid almost $20 an hour,” Pace said,  “and I don’t have to have education to move up in Chick-fil-A.”

“Post Covid there’s an expectation of, you know, a higher wage, which is absolutely well deserved,” added Mounivong.

 “I would love to pay all of my staff premium wages, but I would not have any children, because parents can’t afford to pay more, and a lot of them already pay more for child care than they do for their housing.”

Workers in the field must also be subjected to fingerprinting and background checks, and pass a physical and tuberculosis test, Pace said — a few examples of the many state regulations that add to child care costs.

One consequence of the resulting slim profit margins: When Marlow sold Little Blessings last fall, she actually just sold the building (not to Kid City, which leases the property) and effectively “donated” the business she had opened in 2009, she said. “Unfortunately, there’s no market for child care right now.”

State vouchers for low-income families paid the tuition of most of the children enrolled at Little Blessings, and even from the time of the center’s founding, the compensation wasn’t enough to generate significant profit, said Marlow, who now works for the nonprofit Southwestern Child Development Commission.

“It was always very month-to-month.”

The state stabilization grants supplemented staff salaries and enabled the business to survive in recent years, she said, but were accompanied by repeated threats that the supplements would end, as well as, she said, increasing rates of students from stressed households exhibiting emotional disorders and disruptive behaviors.

Rather than recognizing the challenge of teaching children in this environment, she said, members of the public often dismiss her profession as “babysitting.”

And if anyone is looking for the underlying cause of the shortage and devaluation of these services, she said, it is this lack of respect for early childhood education and education in general. 

“There’s a mindset that you should not make a good income off of being a teacher, you should not make an income off child care. It’s considered like a moral obligation, which it is” she said, “but I definitely think early child care educators should be compensated and compensated well.”

What happened to NC Pre-K?

County-run New Adventure Learning Center, a 5 Star facility that formerly offered NC Pre-K classes. Photo courtesy of Dan DeWitt

It’s especially difficult to provide the compensation needed to maintain NC Pre-K programs, which is considered the “gold standard” of preschool in the state, said Nan Lee, a retired professor of early childhood education at East Carolina University and a child care advocate.

Private-pay preschool tuition typically exceeds $1,000 per month, and the reimbursement for low-income students in the NC Pre-K program is significantly lower than that — and lower than the compensation offered by “market rate” state vouchers for 5 Star centers.

That’s because NC Pre-K reimbursements cover a six-and-a-half hour school day rather than parents’ working days, said Mounivong, who also noted the reimbursements only apply to days schools are in session.

County-run New Adventure was one of several public and private facilities in Transylvania that previously offered NC Pre-K. But county Child Development Director Stacey Gash wrote in an email, that “the center stopped taking NC Pre-K slots several years ago because the rate reimbursed by the state did not cover the cost to provide the service.”

That cost includes meeting a requirement that lead teachers in the program be fully licensed by the state, placing centers in competition for this small pool of these employees with Schools, which pays them the same salary as K-12 educators.

And, unlike private providers, the school district doesn’t expect to profit from NC Pre-K, Reneau said.

“We don’t make money on child care and we have never made money,” Reneau said.

The district’s deficits are driven higher by staffing levels needed to serve the developmentally delayed children the Schools program serves, she said, resulting in a six-to-one student-to-staff ratio.

Schools also receive a smaller reimbursement for low-income families, $580 per student, than outside providers. And even though its fees will rise for the small minority of families who pay the full amount, from $600 to $750 monthly next school year, the Schools’ NC Pre-K program stands to rack up a deficit of about $250,000, Schools Finance Director Gabi Juba wrote in an email.

Because of factors including the sunset of federal funding for schools addressing Covid-19-related learning loss, that deficit would have been an additional $270,000 to cover the costs of maintaining the six classrooms offered last school year, and another $319,000 to expand it to nine classrooms.

Though the county’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year does not include money for this request, in other ways Transylvania has been a leader in advocating for and providing child care, County Manager Jaime Laughter wrote in an email.

In 2015, a county task force published a report, State of the Young Child in Transylvania County, which detailed education and other needs for preschool children. It is also one of the few counties in the state that runs its own center, a 5 Star facility that offers education on par with NC Pre-K, Gash wrote.

Because the county would have to make services available to all children under 5 years old regardless of income, Laughter said in a recent budget presentation, the potential added cost of providing preschool and child care would be prohibitive — a total of $13.5 million, leading to her recommendation the county seek funding and policy assistance from state and federal governments.

“The recommendation is more on the advocacy level,” she said.

Lasting benefits

At their most recent meeting, commissioners started to take on this job, informally agreeing to add such requests to a list of legislative priorities forwarded to the NC Association of County Commissioners, and Laughter said she has had more detailed discussions on this subject with commissioners and lawmakers.

What is the likelihood that legislators will take action?

The state senator representing Transylvania, Kevin Corbin, R-Macon County, is sponsoring a bill that would reform the state rating system and provide funding for centers to cover administrative costs while this process proceeds. Rep. Mike Clamplitt, R-Swain, whose district includes Transylvania, wrote in an email that he will support this initiative if Corbin “gets traction with it.”

The North Carolina General Assembly previously extended the stabilization grants, originally due to sunset in December. This should be extended again, advocates have said, proposing a one-time allocation of $300 million to avoid increased tuition and closures.

Instead, the legislature approved $67.5 million for between now and December 2024.

Though neither Corbin nor Clampitt responded to questions about funding proposals, there’s little doubt that such an investment would easily be recouped both immediately and in the years to come.

In a recent guest column published in the Transylvania Times, Lee cited short-term benefits of early childhood education including higher participation in the workforce, less dependence on tax-funded social services and lower remediation costs for elementary students.

Though some studies have cast doubt on lasting gains from early childhood education, Lee said that the bulk of the evidence supports precisely the opposite conclusion, finding that it ultimately leads to increased rates of high school graduation, college attendance and skilled employment.

These benefits were quantified in a 2007 study by a Nobel Prize-winning economist who found, she wrote in her column, that every dollar spent on early childhood education resulted in long-term returns of between $7 and $13.

Certainly the NC Pre-K program at Brevard Elementary has put McCann’s speech-delayed four-year old son on a promising early path, she said. “We just can’t say enough amazing things about this program.”

“He’s not just in a classroom, he goes to physical education, he goes to music, the library comes and reads books to him,” she said.

And he has not just learned basic math and language concepts, which she expected, she said, but is “connecting the dots and retaining stuff” he learns in science.

When he sees animals, “he starts talking about their habitat,” she said: when she and her son recently went outside to water flowers, “he goes, ‘They’re sucking up nutrients.’”

“I was just blown away,” said McCann. “I mean, this is a kid who a year ago was still kind of struggling to string words together.”

Even more impressive, she said, “his emotional skill set is just exploding.”

He has learned to share with other children and pause to “take a few breaths” when frustrated. He comes home from class talking about conversations he had with his teachers and can’t wait to return every day.

Though she can’t predict how this will shape her son’s academic performance in the long run, she said, she is sure that has developed the “confidence to go into kindergarten and think, like, I can do this and I can learn new things.”

And that, she said, “is just huge.”

Editor’s Note: This article was previously published here on June 14, 2024, by Brevard NewsBeat.

Dan DeWitt

Dan DeWitt is a former reporter and local columnist for the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in Brevard.