Charlotte child care centers face a ‘hard journey’ as pandemic-era funding expires
The last of the $1.3 billion of federal funding that supported child care centers in North Carolina during the pandemic and over the last few years runs out in the coming months. In Charlotte, centers are already worrying about potential cutbacks — cuts that will affect the quality of care centers provide children and babies.
In west Charlotte one recent week, a group of young kids jumped and stomped their feet at a playground at the Alliance Center for Education. In a corner, another kid pedaled a bicycle through a pile of leaves.
Jared Keaton is the chief executive officer of Alliance Center for Education, which operates eight child care centers in Mecklenburg County, mostly in communities where families live at or below the poverty level. Before receiving supplemental funding, Keaton said their centers had trouble staffing classrooms.
“Many of our centers had classrooms where we didn’t have a sustained teacher because of the pandemic. Many folks left the child care workforce altogether,” Keaton said.
That changed with the funds.
“One of the things we benefited from through the funds that we received was being able to retain the staff we had as well as provide ongoing incentive compensations to bring in new workers into the child care workforce,” Keaton said.
Keaton said the funds also helped improve the children's equipment and ensure students learn safely.
“We’ve been able to enhance the environment for the children with technology,” Keaton said. “We’ve been able to improve the environmental safety through having things like electrostatic cleaning and other things we weren’t able to afford prior to the funding.”
The money also helped with simpler needs.
“Many of our families don’t have the ability to transport their students to and from school,” Keaton said. “And the funding has allowed us to leverage additional transportation for our families.”
With the majority of the funding ending soon, Keaton said the centers now have to consider reducing transportation, reverting back to cheaper sanitation and cleaning methods and offering fewer mental health services. One thing the Alliance Center for Education is trying not to reduce is the salary of classroom staff.
“We may have to look at other means of supporting those positions, but we find those positions very vital to what we do on a daily basis,” Keaton said. “So, we’re trying everything we can to make sure we can continue to support our staff.”
Before the pandemic, the center paid classroom staff members a median rate of $16.50 per hour. With the additional relief funds, Alliance was able to increase salaries to $20 an hour. Keaton said he’s not confident they can maintain those salaries in the long run.
Child care is a strange industry — costs are enormous for families, averaging around $15,000 a year in Mecklenburg County, but workers receive very low pay. Wages average $11 per hour in Mecklenburg County for starting teachers, rising to $15 per hour for experienced teachers, according to a report by the Child Care Services Association. About 82% of the Alliance Center for Education children are African American, and the rest are mostly Latino. The center partners with Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, which provides several Spanish-speaking teachers.
In one of the Spanish-speaking classrooms, Giovanna Fraioli handed out turkey-shaped party hats to kids as they celebrated Thanksgiving with their parents. Fraioli is a teacher from Venezuela. She said she’s nervous.
“When my boss says to me, ‘The resources maybe will be cut,’ oh my goodness, (I think) what will happen with my salary, what will happen with my job, what will happen to me or my co-workers? What are we going to do? We don’t know,” Fraioli said.
Fraioli has two children. She said she needs to be able to support them.
“I have to work. I have to get resources for my family, too. After COVID, everything went up: all the prices, food, everything,” Fraioli said. “And actually, we need the money to pay for the house, get food and everything for living.”
Shane Gonzalez sat at a table in a nearby classroom celebrating the holiday with her 9-month-old baby on her lap, mouth open as her mother lifted some pasta into her mouth. Gonzalez has another daughter, age 5, who attends the center, while the younger daughter is part of a home-based program. Gonzalez said the uncertainty around the center’s future worries her.
“That’s very upsetting because we need teachers; we need classrooms to be open. These kids need education; they can’t just be home,” Gonzalez said. “That’s very upsetting and not satisfying at all as parents that my kids go here, and maybe next year, she won’t.”
Gonzalez wished there were additional funds.
“I hope we’re not done in December. I hope we keep going because these kids need a safe place to be,” Gonzalez said. “They need teachers; they need a safe environment to be at.”
There is some positive news: despite talk of a funding “cliff,” the phaseout of money will be more like a slowly dwindling trickle. The state still has money to extend compensation grants, which were used to increase teacher wages and offer bonuses and other benefits.
“This will allow about a six-month continuation of compensation grants. Compensation grants now will not end in December; they’ll end in June 2024,” said Janet Singerman, CEO of Charlotte-based nonprofit Child Care Resources Inc. “That provides us with more time for some federal relief or some additional potential state relief. It moves the child care funding cliff.”
Legislators this year proposed a $300 million extension of stabilization grants through June 2025 to support staff and offer benefits in centers in North Carolina, but the proposal didn’t make it into the final state budget. Singerman said the situation facing child care centers will affect a range of people and businesses.
“This is just not a family concern. This is really a workforce productivity concern, a corporate productivity concern, and an economic recovery concern, not just for Mecklenburg, not just for North Carolina, but our nation,” Singerman said.
In October, Southwestern Child Development announced the closure of seven child care centers in North Carolina's westernmost counties. Combined, these centers serve nearly 300 children.
At Alliance Center for Education, Jared Keaton said he’s optimistic that their centers won’t follow the same path. But he said the possibility of closing might become a reality if they cannot support their staff in the long run.
“If it doesn’t make dollars or doesn’t make sense in terms of being able to provide a livable wage for the staff,” Keaton said. “And that’s a riff that will continue once these funds dry up, so we remain hopeful that appealing to the greater community for other types of support will help sustain missions like ours, but the reality is, it’s going to be a hard journey.”