Making Connections. Build It Better: Child Care after the COVID-19 Pandemic
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The world is experiencing and responding to a public health and economic crisis the likes of which my generation has never seen. On some days, the challenges are such that it’s enough for me to simply put one foot in front of the other. On other days, I am able to look up from the fog and imagine how history may record this chapter decades from now. As I am writing this in April 2020, there is still so much we don’t know. But the depths of the impact this pandemic is having on child care—as it reveals decades of structural cracks and economic vulnerability—is unmistakably devastating. Emergency support to shore up the industry is critical.
Yet even while we are amidst the devastation, we must collectively look up from the fog. We can’t go from this crisis back to the crisis that was already defining our child care and early learning systems. We must resolve the fundamental challenges that have confronted us for decades—those which, if resolved appropriately, will propel far more children into high-quality child care and elevate the value of and compensation for early childhood educators.
Here are six keys we can use to unlock a better future:
1. Count by contract, not by child
During this public health crisis, we are seeing states taking advantage of new and existing flexibilities in child care subsidy funding to provide consistent payments both to programs that have remained open (with reduced enrollment) and to programs that have closed. These moves are a welcome departure from typical CCDBG (Child Care & Development Block Grant) funding approaches, which are based on funding individual children. In an underfunded system in which only one in six eligible children receives subsidy, this funding approach (which is done by attendance at worst and enrollment at best) makes it nearly impossible for providers to engage in planful budgeting. Let’s not return to this strategy. In the future, states should contract with eligible licensed and regulated providers in centers and homes for a defined, consistent number of slots. To maintain public accountability, providers should periodically be audited and should be required to demonstrate they are serving CCDBG-eligible children in those slots.
Early childhood educators need to be paid in alignment with their value, extensive skills, and competencies.
2. Cover the cost of quality
Helping programs budget for consistency is an important step; helping them budget for quality is the next. With significant funding increases for child care in the last two federal budget and appropriations cycles, we have seen governors subsequently make necessary progress on increasing payment rates to providers serving families who receive subsidies through CCDBG. This progress represents a crucial step in fixing the structural financing inequities in child care. We shouldn’t expect the market to serve children from families with low incomes with high-quality child care if we don’t pay programs what it costs to do so. States that commit to using federal and state dollars to pay at or above current market rates and that sustain those increases each year will attract and incentivize a diverse range of high-quality providers, recruit and retain talented early childhood educators, give families real choice, and help young children get the best start in life, all resulting in economic benefits to the state and its workers.
Post-pandemic, we will have to both build toward the future while also rebuilding the foundation.
3. Pay early childhood educators what they are worth
Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, health care workers have rightfully been lauded for their heroic efforts, but child care providers have routinely been overlooked. Both health care and child care workers are in essential roles, with hard science that backs up the value of their professions. Yet can you imagine the compounded challenges of this crisis if nurses and doctors were earning $10.70 per hour (the current average wage for early childhood educators)? If we truly value early childhood education as the backbone to all other industries, then those who are providing the service every day need to be paid in alignment with their value, extensive skills, and competencies.
4. Rethink QRIS
Over the last two decades, the attention to the development and implementation of Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) has done a lot to move high-quality child care into the vernacular. Yet in this moment, we must reflect on whether we have made progress equivalent to what individualized state systems have cost us. While we have spent tens of millions of dollars on QRIS systems—including coaches, assessors, data systems, validation and evaluation systems, and cost of quality studies—early childhood educators are, on the whole, not earning more money, and child care programs continue to operate on razor-thin margins. If we had made the same investments in the drivers of quality related to the workforce and to the program environment, including compensation, market rate payments, scholarships to support the attainment of post-secondary degrees, and early learning and higher education program accreditation, I contend our outcomes would be startlingly different now.
5. Use the Unifying Framework for the Early Childhood Education Profession
Pre-pandemic, we knew we needed to build a unified profession. Post-pandemic, we will have to both build toward the future while also rebuilding the foundation. Our approach should be clear and consistent, reliant on the road map developed through the Unifying Framework for the Early Childhood Education Profession. The Framework speaks to how and where dollars should be spent, what system elements are most critical, and how to avoid 50+ separate approaches for credentialing and certifications, which would inevitably result in an inefficient, inequitable system that is next to impossible for early childhood educators, families, and policymakers to navigate. I can, instead, envision a world where all early childhood educators, in every state and in every setting, are an Early Childhood Educator I, II, or III, connected by position descriptions, compensation, state licensing, and degree programs that are all aligned and straightforward.
This public health crisis has reinforced the essential nature of child care.
6. Incentivize employers to have skin in the game
When COVID-19 became a global pandemic, many industries were decimated while others (like hospitals) needed to remain open and still others (like grocery stores) surged with increased hiring and profits as a result of heightened demand. The existence of open and thriving industries prompted insistence from governors that child care centers and programs remain open—at least in part—so the personnel in essential industries could go to work. This public health crisis has reinforced the essential nature of child care in order to keep at least part of America working in the face of an epidemic—and the rest of America working in the context of a recovery. It is critical that companies and industries recognize the contribution that child care makes to their ability to attract and retain a highly skilled workforce, provide a valuable good or service, and return earnings to their investors and shareholders. This recognition should come in the form of a strong commitment to employer-sponsored child care, which can sit alongside substantial public investment in child care as a public good and be further incentivized by states through favorable tax structures.
It is critical industries recognize the contribution that child care makes to retaining a highly skilled workforce.
COVID-19 is shining a light on the inequities in America. Those deemed most essential are often the least valued and compensated and have the most limited access to basic supports like child care, health care, and food security. It is within our reach to fix these inequities. We can’t go back, so let’s use this crisis to write a new chapter—one that is built on the best of what we know about how young children thrive and learn, how families need stable child care to go to work, and how early childhood educators have to be valued with more than accolades, but with compensation and benefits comparable to their essential status.
Rhian Evans Allvin is the chief executive officer of NAEYC. She is responsible for guiding the strategic direction of the organization as well as overseeing daily operations. Before joining NAEYC, Evans Allvin was a guiding force in Arizona’s early childhood movement for more than 15 years, including serving as CEO of Arizona's First Things First.