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Child care advocates protest at state legislature over funding shortfall

Emma Biggs (in gray shirt wearing ziptie handcuffs) and seven other child care provider advocates were arrested in the legislative building while calling for child care funding.
Grace Vitaglione
/
NC Health News
Emma Biggs (in gray shirt wearing ziptie handcuffs) and seven other child care provider advocates were arrested in the legislative building while calling for child care funding.

Emma Biggs walked into the legislative building on June 26 knowing she likely would be arrested for protesting.

She’s been part of a contingent of child care advocates who have been regularly showing up in Raleigh since the North Carolina General Assembly’s short work session began in April. They’ve been pleading with lawmakers to continue the level of funding the centers received from the federal government during the COVID-19 pandemic, which helped them pay teachers more through raises or bonuses. With those dollars, some centers were even able to provide benefits — often for the first time.

On Wednesday morning, her voice joined those of other protesters standing arm in arm outside of the gleaming oversized brass doors of the state Senate as they practiced nonviolent civil disobedience techniques used by previous generations to fight for civil rights.

As N.C. General Assembly police officers led her away, hands bound with zip ties, Biggs continued to sing a variation on the spiritual “Woke Up This Mornin’ with my Mind Stayed on Jesus.” She replaced the word “Jesus” with “child care.”

“For me, it was completely worth it,” Biggs said Wednesday evening after being processed at the Wake County Justice Center with seven other protesters who were arrested. Her next court date is July 31.

“We knew that we had to take a bold action today because we only have a few more days left in this federal funding, and we needed them to hear our voices,” said Biggs, director of Pathway Preschool Center in Charlotte.

Emma Biggs, director of the Pathway Preschool Center in Charlotte, speaks to a group of child care provider advocates in the legislative building.
Grace Vitaglione
/
NC Health News
Emma Biggs, director of the Pathway Preschool Center in Charlotte, speaks to a group of child care provider advocates in the legislative building.

Short-term fix

The state Senate and House of Representatives have proposed spending plans that would extend around $135 million for child care providers, a sum that would only get them through about nine months starting July 1, the beginning of the state fiscal year.

However, the budget process is at a standstill. Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain) each say they don’t expect to hear the other’s versions of budget bills.

Potential relief for the child care centers came with language that House members slipped into SenateBill 357 that would extend about $35 million to keep child care providers afloat for the first quarter of the fiscal year, but those funds would only last until around Oct. 1.

Rep. Donny Lambeth (R-Winston Salem) said on the House floor that the funding is a temporary solution “with a hope and expectation that we'll be back here sometime before that fund runs out.”

Moore and Berger have said that they will call lawmakers back for a week’s worth of work at the end of September.

Lambeth told NC Health News the Senate hasn’t made any commitments to pass the bill, but he’s optimistic because their budget also funds child care providers.

Advocates pushed for about $180 million to meet the needs of child care agencies through the entirety of the upcoming year.

During a news conference earlier in the day, Beth Messersmith of MomsRising said that though lawmakers said they’ll return in September, that would be too late.

“Child care teachers don't get to go home at the end of the day before their job is done,” she said. “The lawmakers in this building should not go home before their jobs are done.”

Advocates for Head Start, a federally funded preschool program, also came to the legislative building to support extending child care funding.

Lobbyist Christy Jones said that Head Start programs partner with child care centers that may have to close if the funding doesn’t materialize, meaning those Head Start programs would also lose children.

‘Bad business’

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

“Allowing child care funding to expire and centers to close is bad business,” said Davina Boldin-Woods, director of First Presbyterian Child Development Center in Burlington.

“It’s bad for our children. It’s bad for our families. It’s bad for companies and businesses. It’s bad for North Carolina’s economy and future,” she said.

Lack of child care costs North Carolina $5.65 billion in lost economic activity annually, according to a report commissioned by the U.S. and N.C. chambers of commerce foundations in partnership with the advocacy group NC Child.

The report, released earlier this month, also found that 35 percent of parents who experienced disruptions to their employment in the past year reported leaving the workforce as a direct result of issues with child care. And 15 percent of working parents reported plans to leave the workforce within the next 12 months over child care issues.

Child care advocates warn that those issues will intensify if there is not additional support to keep centers from closing, reducing staff, combining classrooms or raising prices.

Tuition will go up, and quality will go down, Boldin-Woods said. She said her center is not considering combining classrooms, but her board of directors is looking at raising tuition and making adjustments to salaries and benefits to potentially save money.

Center directors in her area held a regular meeting on Monday night where they got a legislative update. One comment from a fellow director stuck with her, Boldin-Woods said.

“The legislators need to leave the games to the kids,” she said. “They need to get to work, and they cannot leave the table until they’ve made a happy plate,” meaning they’ve cleared their plate of work.

Continuing pressure

Sandy Weathersbee, owner of Providence Preparatory School in Charlotte, doesn’t expect a resolution this session.

“There just seems to be so much distance between them,” he said of the General Assembly’s two chambers. “I just haven’t been able to see a lot of headway.”

While he believes there’s “a lot of positive momentum going on around how to solve this problem,” he doesn’t expect it will be solved this year or next year.

Biggs and other child advocates plan to continue showing up at the legislative building, even after lawmakers leave for a break.

“We can’t take two to three months off,” she said. “We can’t go on vacation for two to three months. Our families can’t wait for two to three months.”

She encouraged supporters to reach out to legislators.

“Show up at their offices to let them know we need them to support child care,” she said. “We can put pressure on them.”

If that initial tranche of funding gets final approval, that would be a good start, Biggs said.

“But we need them to complete that budget and boldly invest in child care when that budget is made,” she said.


This article first appeared on North Carolina Health News and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

North Carolina Health News is an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering all things health care in North Carolina. Visit NCHN at northcarolinahealthnews.org.

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