The Care and Learning initiative (CandL) recently wrapped up a 34-county listening tour of North Carolina, talking to hundreds of parents and child care providers about what they want and need from early childhood education. What they heard was that quality child care comes down to three things: trust, affordability, and availability. Without all three, parents make sacrifices and hard choices, and providers are frustrated that they can’t offer what families need.
For parents, trust is a multilayered concept. It starts with loving, passionate teachers who often feel like family. Parents prefer that these teachers be trained educators who can lay a foundation for life-long learning. They look for centers with a good word-of-mouth reputation that are reliable and have low staff turnover. They also value respect for diversity, including diversity of languages, races, and ethnicities. Trust tended to be strongest with in-home caregivers.
Parents talked about foregoing bills, dreams, and careers because of the high cost of child care. Many parents decide not to work to provide their own child care, even when they would prefer to pursue a career. Vouchers do not adequately meet families’ needs and are seen as difficult to acquire and are stigmatized.
At the same time that families struggle with cost, many providers worry about the future once COVID grant funding runs out. Many centers rely on grant funding to meet expenses and stay open. Some use grant money to help families using vouchers afford the associated parent fees. The pressure of qualifying for grants adds to provider burnout.
The star rating system, interviewers found, was less associated with trust than with cost. Parents felt more stars signaled higher cost, not more trustworthiness. Providers who keep fees low to be accessible to families have more staffing shortages and may not be able to pay staff more, leading to lower star ratings. Providers also felt the state was more supportive of centers with higher star ratings, exacerbating inequities.
Shortages of child care centers and staffing within those centers cause long waitlists, both at the centers and for in-home care. Turnover in the child care sector is high, and providers are burned out and undervalued without the resources they need to succeed.
When child care is scarce, transportation can become a burden. Parents often drive up to 30 minutes to get to child care. In addition to the cost of gas, transportation time can limit available work hours, especially for child care that already has limited hours.
Many parents only need part-time care or need care outside the traditional 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. hours. Without flexible and non-traditional child care hours available, parents often rely on drop-in centers or family to care for children. This can be expensive and burdensome.
In addition to the concrete barriers of hours and distance, language differences can make child care functionally unavailable to parents who don’t speak fluent English. Most providers only speak English, and relying on children, Google Translate, or a single translator in the center does not build trust. Even finding information on options and financial assistance can be difficult in languages other than English.
County and state resources don’t provide a centralized location where parents can go to learn about child care options and resources. Parents must rely on word of mouth or their own research. Providers are frustrated that they can’t offer this resource to parents since it makes it harder for parents to access the kinds of care and assistance they need.
A heavy burden on women
The crisis in early childhood education falls disproportionately on women. This has implications for their financial independence and ability to pursue their dreams. When child care scarcity prevents a parent from working, that responsibility is more likely to fall on the mother. And most child care providers are women as well. Providers felt that they are often not seen as heads of household, and that contributes to low wages and lack of benefits.
CandL’s next phase will involve developing policy recommendations based on the findings of the listening sessions, working towards a child care system that is trustworthy, affordable, and available to all families who need it.