We recently returned from the first meeting of the inaugural cohort of The Hunt Institute’s Hunt State Policy Fellows (HSPF) program, where we met county commissioners, school board members, mayors, city councilors, advocates, and other community leaders across North Carolina. The program was created to provide resources, space, and expertise needed to develop thoughtful positions on a variety of education policy issues, and this first meeting was focused on early childhood education.
The two-day meeting exposed us to many experts in the field of early childhood education, and we are excited to have this space to share highlights of what we learned.
THE SCIENCE OF EARLY LEARNING
The first three to five years are of life-changing consequence.
From birth, every interaction with caregivers helps to shape the foundation of children’s social/emotional, cognitive, communication, adaptive and physical development.
The delivery of high-quality early childhood supports prevent future gaps we see in education and across society.
THE ECONOMIC CASE FOR EARLY CHILDHOOD INVESTMENT: THE EARLIER THE BETTER
James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winning economist at the University of Chicago, has shown that for every dollar spent on high-quality birth-to-five programs for disadvantaged children, taxpayers can expect a 13 percent per annumreturn on investment.
Returns come in the form of both immediate and long-term savings across education and social service landscapes such as reductions in retention, special education, welfare supports, and incarceration, and increases in employment and taxpaying ability.
Preschool intervention improves participants’ employment, health outcomes, and cognitive and social-emotional skills, and has shown to reduce male participants’ criminal activity (especially violent crime). Moreover, the effects seem to carry over decades later into participants’ own children.
NORTH CAROLINA’S EARLY CHILDHOOD LANDSCAPE
Early childhood education funding makes up just over one percent of the state budget.
The cost for quality child care programs remains a significant barrier for many parents and families. The annual cost of infant child care in North Carolina exceeds in-state tuition for a four-year public college, and care for two children costs more than the state’s average yearly rent.
The high cost of child care leads many parents to leave the workforce or reduce their paid work hours to care for their children. In doing so, parents forgo approximately $30–35 billion in potential income, nationally.
NORTH CAROLINA EARLY EDUCATION WORKFORCE
The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear the importance of stable, high-quality child care so that parents of young children can hold gainful employment. Despite the critical nature of the work, the early childhood workforce is among the country’s lowest-paid.
In 2019, the national median wage for child care workers was $11.65 per hour (Bureau of Labor Statistics data). In North Carolina, average hourly rates for child care workers were lower than the national average, at $10.62 an hour.
North Carolina’s Early Childhood educators are more likely to live in poverty than their K-12 counterparts.
From 2016-2019, 39 percent of child care teachers, 37 percent of assistant teachers, and 16 percent of family child care home providers in North Carolina received some sort of public assistance (e.g., Medicaid, SNAP, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), child care subsidy).
Equally concerning, early childhood teachers seldom receive job-based benefits like health insurance, sick leave, and retirement. Overall, less than half of center-based programs contributed to employee health insurance, only 15 percent of centers offered fully paid health insurance, and only 43 percent offered retirement benefits.
Research shows that early educators who face economic stress and inadequate working conditions have more difficulty engaging in the high-quality teacher-child interactions that matter most for facilitating children’s learning.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
In large part due to low pay and poor benefits, turnover among child care professionals is high even as the need for high quality child care increases. Providers are seeing staffing losses to employers like Target and Costco.
It is clear that investing in quality early childhood programs can decrease future funding needs in other areas.
Parents benefit from knowledgeable early childhood educators in recognizing health and development issues early and providing opportunity for healthier families through earlier medical intervention.
What actions can policymakers take to ensure equitable access for all families to early childhood programs?
How can we improve coordination and collaboration across state agencies working in the early childhood space?
How can policymakers ensure the early childhood workforce receives a living wage while also ensuring that child care is affordable for all families?
At the end of the two-day session, we both came away recognizing the importance and impact of early childhood education, and that the future of our state depends on investments now. As Fellows, we will continue to advocate for resources to support the children of North Carolina.