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The state of child care in North Carolina

In 2018, amid a record low fertility rate of 60.2 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age, the New York Times asked young adults why they had or expected to have fewer children than they considered ideal. The top answer, with 64% of respondents listing it as a reason: “Child care is too expensive.”

In North Carolina, more than 455,000 children under six live in families where their sole parent or both parents are working. For these families, access to affordable, quality child care is crucial to both the economic success of the parents and the cognitive and social development of their child(ren).

While child care comes in a variety of formats, including from other relatives and babysitters, 60% of children in the United States ages 3 to 6 were in center-based care arrangements in 2016. Across North Carolina, 5,956 licensed child care facilities — including 4,456 child care centers and 1,500 family child care homes — provide care to more than 247,000 children, roughly 77% of which are birth to 5 years old, with the remaining being school-age children.

Now, let’s take a look at who regulates child care in North Carolina, the affordability of child care, and how the quality of child care is monitored.

Who’s in charge?

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NC DHHS) Division of Child Development and Early Education (DCDEE) is the state entity in charge of governing child care and administering NC Pre-K, the state’s preschool for at-risk 4-year-olds. The core responsibilities of DCDEE, as they relate to child care, are outlined below.

  • To ensure the health and safety of children in child care programs, DCDEE licenses, monitors, and provides technical assistance to child care programs, conducts background checks with individuals who work in child care programs, and supports the NC Child Care Commission, which creates, amends, and repeals rules to implement child care law.
  • To promote quality child care, DCDEE evaluates teacher and administration education to determine qualification for positions, funds the Child Care Resource and Referral system, which provides evidence-based technical assistance for early childhood professionals, and collaborates with the NC Partnership for Children/Smart Start. Smart Start is a statewide network of partnerships that administer a variety of funds to early childhood programs at the local level.
  • To increase access to quality child care, DCDEE administers the state’s Subsidized Child Care Assistance program, provides this online tool to search for child care programs, addresses the need for child care for families experiencing homelessness, and administers the state’s Child Care and Development Fund federal block grant.

Affordability of child care

According to the Child Care Services Association, the average 4-star center market rate for 2-year-olds in North Carolina is $815 per month. If a family doesn’t qualify for child care subsidies or if subsidies aren’t available in their county, a family of two with one child and $32,485 in annual earnings would pay 30% of their gross annual income for child care at the county rate.

Courtesy of the Child Care Services Association

Child care subsidies are available to qualifying families through the Subsidized Child Care Assistance program. While DCDEE oversees the Subsidized Child Care Assistance program, county social services agencies administer the funds locally. Funding for the subsidies comes from the North Carolina general fund and from two federal grants: the Child Care and Development Fund and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). According to the Child Care Services Association, the state received and spent more than $340 million in federal and state funds (not including Smart Start) to finance these subsidies in the 2018 fiscal year.

To qualify for these subsidies, a family must meet both situational and financial criteria. One of the following situations must apply to the family: you are working or attempting to find work, you are in school or in a job training program, your child is receiving child protective services, your child needs care to support child welfare services, your family is experiencing a crisis, or your child has developmental needs. To be financially eligible for the subsidies, a family of four with children ages 0-5 or special needs children cannot have a gross monthly income above $4,100. Most families are required to pay 10% of their child care costs based on their gross monthly income.

Once a family receives a subsidy, they are free to choose any child care arrangement as long as the provider participates in the Subsidized Child Care program. To be eligible to participate, providers must have a rated license of 3 stars or higher and religious-sponsored programs must have a notice of compliance letter. More on those ratings later.

While 65,987 children across the state benefit from these subsidies, there’s not enough funding to go around. According to the Child Care Services Association, 33,098 eligible children were on the waiting list for a subsidy in March.

Use the map below to see how many children were served with subsidies and how many children were on the waitlist for a subsidy in all 100 counties as of May 2019. Darker shades of blue indicate a higher number of children on the waitlist for a subsidy. To view the original data, click here, select the “Child Care in North Carolina” section, and select the May 2019 reporting period.

Use the map below to see the 4-star child care center market rate for a 2-year-old and the percent of family income spent on child care as of May 2019. The 4-star market rate was developed using federal guidelines for setting subsidy payment rates and data from a fiscal year 2017 market rate study.

The second variable below, percent of family income spent on child care, reflects the percent of gross income assuming the family is not receiving subsidies. A single mother with one child earning $32,484 or less per year is eligible to receive subsidy funds as available. But, if funds aren’t available or if the parent’s earnings exceed the income eligibility limits, a parent would pay a percent of their gross income for child care offered at the county rate. Darker shades of purple indicate a higher percent of income spent on child care.

The Child Care Services Association, the original source of this data, says the following about these numbers in their reports: “Due to the high cost of child care, parents often make difficult choices. Some may be forced to seek TANF. Others may seek cheaper, often inadequate child care or leave their children unattended.”

Quality of child care

Since 2000, DCDEE has issued star-rated licenses to all eligible child care centers and family child care homes. Religious-sponsored child care programs do not receive a star rating unless they choose to apply, and operate instead with a notice of compliance. On its website, DCDEE says that star-rated licenses allow child care programs “to be recognized for the higher quality care” they already provide.

Currently, facilities are evaluated on two components: staff education and program standards, each of which are graded on a seven-point scale. Facilities can also earn one “quality point” for meeting standards related to staff education and programming.

The number of points a center can earn in the staff education category is based on: education and experience levels of the administrator, number of lead teachers with NC Early Childhood Credentials, number of lead teachers with additional early childhood or child development education/experience, number of teachers with NC Early Childhood Credentials, and number of teachers with formal additional early childhood or child development education/experience. The minimum requirement is that a lead teacher be at least 18 years old, hold a high school diploma or its equivalent, and hold a NC Early Childhood Credential or its equivalent.

The number of points a center can earn in the program standards category is based on: the program environment (space for activities, age appropriate materials, age appropriate activities, indoor/outdoor play area), number of staff per child, and the interactions between adults and children, children with other children, and children with activities and materials.

All facilities receive unannounced annual compliance visits from DCDEE, and unannounced follow-up visits may be held after that to address any violations. For an overview of all the regulatory visit types DCDEE conducts on child care centers, click here.

A star rated license sample. Courtesy of NC DHHS

A one-star rating means the facility meets minimum licensing requirements. A two through five-star rating means the facility has voluntarily met higher program standards and staff education levels.

When choosing a child care option, DCDEE recommends that parents review star-rated license information, sanitation scores, complaint investigations, visits made by division staff, and any administrative actions that have been taken on the center. DCDEE offers this checklist for parents to use before visiting a center and offers this online tool that allows families to search for child care options in their area. You can filter by star-rated license and special requirements like transportation or sick child care.

Use the map below to see the percent of birth to 5-year-olds, among those enrolled in child care, that are enrolled at a 4 or 5-star child care center and a 4 or 5-star family home. Darker shades of green indicate a higher percentage of children enrolled in 4 or 5-star child care centers. Family homes are less common than child care centers, and some counties — like Cherokee, Clay, and Avery — have no family homes. Thus, 0% of children are enrolled in 4 or 5-star family homes in those counties.

North Carolinians weigh in

In a recent Reach NC Voices poll, more than 300 North Carolinians shared their thoughts on child care with us.

Here’s a sample of comments we received on this topic. For a look at the full results, click here.

“Many childcare options have very little flexibility and do not take the individual needs of the student under consideration.” — New Hanover County

“For our community college students, childcare is one of the hurdles we see preventing them from attending classes or participating full time. We always exhaust our childcare voucher supply for our students.” — Rowan County

“Both our children are well beyond pre-school years, but I was shocked at the cost of quality preschool care in the back in the day. We were essentially spending my wife’s entire salary for daycare. We only did it because if my wife stayed home with the kids, her career was over and she would have struggled to re-enter the work force (we have friends that made this choice and these were real consequences). So either spend your salary on daycare, or be discriminated against reentering the workforce.” — Wake County

“Stop having kids if you can’t afford them. It’s not the government or the people’s duty to pay for your kids. Take responsibility and start supporting yourself as well as your kids. People should work for what they want. I understand circumstances beyond our control happen, and we need help sometimes. But it should not be the govt or taxes paying for you or them for the rest of your life.” — Robeson County

As a kindergarten teacher, I am aware of how important preschool education is. Children need preschool to establish social skills and cooperative learning skills through play. They cannot get that watching TV at home or playing on their Ipad. Also, parents are busy on their phones quite frequently and don’t communicate with their children like they should. Being in preschool their oral language skills will grow better. — Buncombe County

Note: All maps in this article were created using data from the Child Care Services Association’s early childhood data repository. To locate the data, select the section “Child Care in North Carolina” and select the May 2019 reporting period.

Analisa Sorrells

Analisa Sorrells is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and previously worked as chief of staff and associate director of policy for EducationNC.