Texas has a chance to strengthen its baby care system and ship dad and mom again to work

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the critical role that high quality early childhood education plays in the economic health of our region and our state. Long overlooked, it is now recognized as an essential service for working parents and the businesses that employ them. Despite its essential nature, the childcare industry is at risk. Strategic use of federal pandemic aid can improve this broken system if invested wisely.

This crisis has had a dramatically negative impact on an already fragile childcare system. This is important here in North Texas. Almost one in ten children in America lives in Texas, and one in four children in Texas lives in North Texas. Most of these children have both parents in employment. While our schools and Head Start programs had the ability to teach remotely, daycare did not. Reduced and unpredictable enrollments and additional costs for compliance with COVID-19 protocols (an average of 47% higher operating costs) presented the childcare system with the greatest challenges of all time. As a result, 25% of daycare in Texas closed.

The biggest cost of running childcare facilities is paying qualified teachers to promote and encourage early childhood education. The fact that childcare is a people-centric business drives the current reality that the annual cost of childcare rivals that of annual tuition in state universities. Unlike college, parents with young children rely on this essential service to get them to work.

Despite the high cost, childcare wages are only slightly above the minimum wage and profit margins are low. Early childhood educator salaries do not reflect the complexity or long-term value of the job, and low wages create high turnover, which is difficult for young children and programs. Weak infrastructure has left providers struggling to keep their businesses going while parents struggle to afford quality care. This is a loss-loss suggestion.

New federal stimulus dollars offer an unprecedented opportunity to build a functioning childcare and early education system that addresses these complex issues. The Texas Workforce Commission’s insightful investments in the original Coronavirus Aid, Aid and Economic Security (CARES) Act have already made important strides in temporarily stabilizing the effects of COVID-19. However, further progress is needed. Texas receives significant federal funding to support the industry through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

This one-time funding provides the greatest opportunity we have ever had to address key systemic challenges facing the sector: non-viable wages for the professionals responsible for our youngest learners and uncoordinated systems that make childcare difficult for parents.

The funds should be used to pilot incentive programs, including grants and benefits, to ensure that childcare professionals earn enough to motivate the best workers to stay in childcare careers. The state should also invest in infrastructure in the form of a coordinated referral and data system for early learning. Since the federal government has pledged to further increase the allocation of funds, future funds can be allocated based on the findings from these time-limited funds if they are used well.

Smart, deliberate uses of these dollars should include:

– Scholarships to support childcare.

-Multi-agency coordinated referral and data systems for early learning.

-Stable financing through contracts with high quality providers in areas with high needs to complement the voucher-based funding program.

– Shared complementary family services such as counseling and health services.

– Business support including back office services and business coaching.

We must seize this unprecedented opportunity to use federal dollars to build an effective early childhood education and childcare system. High quality, stable childcare is not only key to our state’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, but it will make Texas a stronger today and in the future.

Regen Horchow is the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Early Matters Dallas. She wrote this column for the Dallas Morning News.

The following people also signed the column:

Brendan McGuire, Head of Corporate Banking at PNC Bank North Texas

Michelle Vopni, 2021 Chair of the Dallas Regional Chamber Board of Directors

Amber Scanlan, member of the Texas Early Learning Council

Ximena Antunez de Mayolo, Chair of the Early Learning Alliance

Tobitha Holmes, President of the Early Education Leaders Coalition

Melanie Rubin, director of the North Texas Early Education Alliance

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