Child care advocates rally for funding, support

Child care advocates rally for funding, support

By Jennifer Fernandez

RALEIGH — Dozens of child care facilities across North Carolina closed Thursday. 

Not because they didn’t have enough teachers — which many don’t.

Not because parents could no longer afford to send their children there — which a growing number can’t.

Not because federal pandemic aid had ended — which it soon could.

They closed to make a point — several points, actually. The primary point is that child care is important to children’s health and education. Access to affordable child care drives the economy. And the people working in child care are worth more than they are getting paid. 

The centers closed so workers and supporters could meet in the state capitol to rally for the funding they say is vital  to allow many to stay open. 

Kayla Nelson, a lead teacher for 1 ½ – to 2-year-olds at Little Makers Academy in Raleigh, had a simple question for lawmakers: “Where are the funds?”

But she fears that child care workers are not important to lawmakers.

“If they cared enough, they would give us the money,” she said. “They give money to people who make them money.”

Child care advocates rally for funding, support

Rally for change

More than 450 people signed up to attend the one-day action, which included a rally and small group visits with legislators. It was organized by a coalition of partners under Child Care for NC: United for Change.

About 50 child care sites closed, and another 70 that couldn’t close sent representatives to the rally, according to Daniela Perez, media relations director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which helped organize the event.

The big ask at Thursday’s rally was the same one from last year: $300 million to extend federal pandemic aid for stabilization grants for the child care centers. 

The last of that federal funding dries up at the end of June. The money, which Congress first allocated in 2020 during the early, confusing days of the pandemic, helped centers pay teachers more through raises or bonuses; some were even able to provide benefits — often for the first time. The grants were renewed in 2021 and again last year. 

A survey of child care centers released in March shows that without that extra government funding, centers can expect to lose teachers, close classrooms, raise tuition and fees or a combination of those measures.

Along with a one-time infusion to continue the stabilization grants, advocates also want legislators to approve:

  • $95 million annually to fund a new child care subsidy rate structure that will help programs serve working families in their communities.
  • $10 million annually for Smart Start, a public-private initiative that provides early education funding to all of the state’s 100 counties. That money would provide statewide early childhood infrastructure that supports child care, children’s health and developmental outcomes, early literacy, and families with young children in all 100 counties.

“It’s just a matter of priorities,” Steve Luking, a retired family physician in Reidsville, told the audience.

Luking — who is running as a Democrat opposed to Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) — urged lawmakers to move quickly.

“Don’t waste a dozen years like you did with Medicaid expansion,” he said.

Closings continue

The expiration of federal funding threatens the closure of over 1,500 child care programs affecting nearly 92,000 child care slots, according to a survey commissioned by the North Carolina Child Care Resource & Referral Council. 

Organizers called Thursday’s rally “a stark preview” of the potential future without affordable child care, underscoring the significant impact on North Carolina’s workforce and families.

The state has seen a net loss of about 5 percent of child care programs since February 2020, EducationNC reported recently.

That loss has been accelerating. The state experienced a net loss of 34 programs in the last half of 2023, according to data from the N.C. Division of Child Development and Early Education. EducationNC reported that its analysis of the state data showed a net loss of 41 programs in just the first three months of this year.

Vanessa Hunt knows that loss personally.

After 50 years in the child care industry, and 15 years running Ms. Van’s Childcare Center in Raleigh, she could no longer keep her doors open. She closed her center last year and sold it.

“I just couldn’t sustain it,” she said.

As a small center, with just 36 slots, she couldn’t be competitive, Hunt said.

She attended Thursday’s rally because child care is “a worthy cause,” Hunt said. “Look how many people are out here rallying for this.”

High demand

Micah Anderson, 36, had to wait several months to get his now 11-month-old son Miles Anderson-Miller into Branches Community School in Durham.

If the center had to close, it would put their family back at square one for finding child care. Anderson said his family is lucky because they have some flexibility: He has his own business, and his wife’s salaried job also allows her some leeway. 

Parents, children and child care workers sitting on a blanket
Beth Branciforte (left), owner of Branches Community School, says ‘hi’ to 11-month-old Miles Anderson-Miller as his father, Micah Anderson (right) watches. The school shut down Thursday so teachers, students and parents could attend the “Day without child care” rally outside of the Legislative Building in Raleigh to encourage lawmakers to support the child care industry. Credit: Jennifer Fernandez/NC Health News

Still, it would affect their ability to work. Beyond that, they would miss out on the great community that the center provides, he said.

The school, which opened in 2018, serves 33 children. Owner Beth Branciforte said demand in Durham is so high that she has a waiting list of 150 children. 

“North Carolina is considered a child care desert,” she said.

Anderson said there “should be more money to help child care stay open.”

Branciforte said the No. 1 goal Thursday was to put pressure on legislators to continue the stabilization grants. The next goal is to help the industry expand to meet the demand.

She refuses to reduce the pay or benefits for her 12 teachers. That only leaves raising the cost for parents or getting support from legislators.

“But they won’t listen to us until it’s too late,” she said. “Once child care programs close down, they won’t reopen.”

Terra Flint has spent 19 years at Trinity Wesleyan Education Center in Eden, where she is assistant pastor and child care director. 

She is worried that if licensed child care sites close, children will end up staying with people who aren’t qualified to care for them. 

Legislative efforts

Lawmakers did tackle some issues around child care in the most recent session.

The North Carolina budget passed last year included $525,000 to increase the capacity of family child care homes and also included support for a $900,000 pilot program that shares child care costs among families, the state and the provider. 

The budget also included an increase in child care subsidies, mostly federal money used to help offset the cost to parents, although the increase was based on older market data.

Also last session, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 722 to help address the workforce shortage. The state now accepts the “child development associate” credential as part of the requirements for the star rating system for child care.

Legislators have submitted more than two dozen bills during last year’s long session and this year’s short session to address child care issues. The bills sought to increase subsidies to help parents pay for care, provide funding to support child care programs to avoid the coming financial cliff, provide financial aid to pre-K and child care teachers so their children can attend child care, provide tax credits to early education teachers and directors, and reinstate the child care tax credit.

Most of these bills never made it out of committee. Some have been resubmitted this session.

YouTube video

‘Care can’t wait’

Supporters argued Thursday that there is money to support the child care industry, if legislators would just spend it.

The state has a large rainy day fund that it could use, Courtney Alexander, a child care provider from Charlotte, told the audience. 

In addition, the state Senate recently approved expanding the Opportunity Scholarship by $463 million. That’s public money going to private schools, said Rob Stephens of the Poor People’s Campaign, an advocacy organization. He said that money is going to rich people at the expense of families who struggle to afford child care so they can work.

Emma Biggs, a child care center director from Charlotte, has rallied other center directors around the issue of teacher pay and child care investment. On Thursday, she led one of the small groups of advocates who attended the “Day Without Child Care” rally to speak with lawmakers about providing more funding. 

Many of them gathered for an impromptu protest, walking past offices chanting “Care can’t wait” for several minutes as children gamboled alongside many of them. The demonstration ended when Capitol Police officers asked them to be quiet because people were trying to work. The group dispersed after a few minutes, and Biggs continued her quest to meet with lawmakers.

She expects to be back at the Legislative Building soon.

“We’re going to have to put pressure on them,” she said.

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