Child care workers aren’t making enough to pay the bills. Tarrant County has a plan.

Isaac Windes/iwindes@star-telegram.com
·10 min read

City and county leaders are stepping up to fund major early education and child care initiatives this month, just as a new report previewed at a quarterly meeting of the Tarrant County Early Learning Alliance paints a grim picture of the availability of quality child care in the county.

The study, exploring barriers to high-quality child care in Tarrant County, found local examples of long-standing structural issues in child care, including low compensation, high costs of living and a dwindling supply of providers further narrowed by the pandemic.

The result is a limited number of providers, struggling to retain staff and as a result struggling to provide a high quality of education to young students, according to a presentation of the executive summary on Tuesday.

According to the preview of the study, which was informed by a survey of of 118 providers as well as focus groups and conducted by the Think Tank Capita, 36% of providers struggled to pay all of their bills month-to-month, and 47% would not be able to handle an emergency cost of $400 without it impacting their ability to pay bills.

“This is right here in Tarrant County,” ELA Executive Director Bethany Edwards said. “These are the educators that are working right here with our kiddos.”

Early educators still leaving workforce due to wages, benefits

Across Texas, early educators have continued to leave the workforce, even after some of them returned as the pandemic began to wane at the beginning of the year, according to numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Sydney Pardee, who was an early educator in Fort Worth, shared her concerns about being overworked and underpaid with the Star-Telegram in October of last year. She is now one of the hundreds of early educators who have left the field since January, making Texas one of the few states that has lost jobs in the sector after gaining them back post-pandemic.

“It was definitely difficult,” Pardee said. “I had grown quite close to all the families in my class, so it was a very emotional process leaving. The parents were quite sad.”

But in two months since leaving child care, Pardee said she has gained “huge parts of her life back.”

“Just in terms of time but also … just not being nearly as mentally and physically exhausted, at the end of the day,” she said. “So I actually have the wherewithal and the will to do things after work, or on the weekends and not having to spend as much time recovering from the stresses of child care.”

Pardee said despite some raises, she was overworked and was expected to skip breaks and cover shifts as various iterations of COVID-19 repeatedly battered the industry.

With benefits, work-life balance and a generous increase in compensation at her new job in logistics, she said she doesn’t want to go back.

“It does kind of suck, because I do miss it, and I was good at it,” she said. “It also sucks to know that it’s not super valued by society, at least not in actual tangible terms, like living wages. So, it does make me a little sad to think about because if I could make a living doing it, and it didn’t absolutely drain the life out of me, then maybe I would still be working there today.”

Providers and advocates both called for investments to focus on these core issues when deciding how to direct millions of dollars from various sources to stabilize child care.

County invests $45M in stabilizing early education programs

County leaders, informed by a Blue Ribbon Commission on child care and the expertise of the nonprofit Child Care Associates, hope to turn the tide on the status quo in child care by supplementing wages, increasing quality and providing the infrastructure to build out more infant and toddler care in areas with the greatest need.

Jerletha McDonald, the founder and president of Arlington DFW Child Care, responded to the finding of the Capita study by highlighting the difficulty in providing benefits as a small company operating in the margins, like many child care providers are.

“The average early educators are receiving between $10-12, maybe lower than that,” she said. “There are no retirement plans, there’s no health insurance … and an employee can go and work at Buc-ee’s, or at Chipotle, and receive retirement benefits, 401K, health insurance etc.”

Last week the county voted on three proposals to spend 11% of the county’s $408 million in COVID relief funds on various projects to increase the availability and stability of child care as a first step toward solving these issues.

One proposal aims to bring all eligible child care providers receiving state subsidies onto the state Quality Rating and Improvement System, which requires providers to meet quality standards on things like director training, teacher-child interactions and indoor and outdoor environments.

Only 33% of eligible providers currently participate, according to the report presented Tuesday, a decrease in pre-pandemic participation. This is due in part to the closure of several participating providers.

The county’s $2 million investment for this effort builds on $3 million in funding from Workforce Solutions for Tarrant County to strengthen child care businesses and expand child care quality.

But improving quality and joining the Texas Rising Star system can be costly.

Child care providers who have taken steps to join Texas Rising Star over the years have often paid for the costs upfront, even though the return on investment in the form of expanded subsidies doesn’t come for months, or years.

“Providers also noted that they must pay for improvements up front and are only reimbursed later, a real hardship given the relatively low margins of child care businesses,” the report said.

Cost modeling in the report found that costs to providers went from $619 a month to provide lower quality care to children, up to $1,332 a month to provide the highest quality of care to children. A large part of that cost included increasing compensation for early educators from near-minimum wage levels, up to the average income of kindergarten teachers.

With business coaching, and upfront assistance with TRS-related costs, the county hopes to remove this barrier to quality.

Tarrant County is also putting $15 million into helping stabilize businesses that are already on the quality rating program, expand their access to resources and identify what the true cost of providing quality child care is so they can find sustainable ways to fund it beyond the current infusion of federal dollars.

“Today, we’re not covering the full costs of being a high-quality program, and Texas parents can’t afford to pay more to offset that cost,” Child Care Associates President and CEO Kara Waddell said. ”So we are running a pilot to see, can we provide access to these TRS 4 programs so that they are getting those expenses covered? And does that bring additional stability? Are children thriving? Is there less workforce turnover, are parents better supported, are educators better supported?”

The organization will also open up a request for bids for a research partner to come alongside and evaluate the impacts of the pilot program to inform future investments.

“We’re going to need to have a public way to help offset those costs, especially for the programs operating in our area that may have larger percentages of lower income” families, Waddell added.

County funding expansion of infant and toddler care in coming years

The largest tranche of money however, $28 million, is being funneled into efforts to expand and maximize resources for infant-toddler classrooms.

At a County Commission meeting, Waddell pointed out wide swaths of Tarrant County with no available, affordable infant-toddler care.

According to the presentation, to maximize existing infrastructure and resources, the county and Child Care Associates will seek partnerships with municipalities, school districts, higher education and other public entities with a goal of doubling the county’s investment of $28 million and adding 50 new infant-toddler classrooms in high-need neighborhoods.

CCA already uses available classrooms in several school districts to provide Head start, and has already partnered with Crowley Independent School District, to provide Early Head Start programs in school classrooms.

Head Start and Early Head Start programs are free, nationally funded programs designed to promote school readiness for children from low-income families. Early Head Start serves pregnant women and families with children under age 3. Head Start programs serve children between 3 and 5 years old. Home visiting services to support expectant mothers is an additional program option.

Waddell said the move is the natural progression, following a similar expansion of affordable pre-K decades ago.

“Twenty-five to 30 years ago, we did the same thing in our community back when we had the opportunity to expand Head Start,” Waddell said. “You only had half-day pre-K in the state of Texas, so we had a lot of public investment. Cities put in land and money and ISDs put in land and built facilities.”

The same thing is happening now, she said, with a focus on infants and toddlers.

“We did an evaluation, and it showed where the existing Early Head Start services are today,” she said. “And then based on high concentrations of families that are eligible for Early Head Start with young children,

“The hope is to build 50 new Early Head Start classrooms, in addition to related preschool classrooms, that we could serve an additional 400 toddlers over time, which over 20 years, could bring $160 million in resources for our highest-need families,” she said.

Las Vegas Trail Child Development Center could be blueprint for future centers

A blueprint for what the investments could produce comes in the form of a new child care center in the Las Vegas Trail area, which was just given a green light by city officials last week.

During last week’s Fort Worth City Council meeting, the council approved a land lease agreement that paves the way for a Las Vegas Trail Child Development Campus to become a reality for the high-need community.

CCA will build and operate the new facility, which is slated to be adjacent to the existing LVTRise Community Center.

“This will give us a really great template of what we can envision for other neighborhoods and communities,” Waddell said.

The city is charging Child Care Associates $1 for a 30-year term.

“Over the past two years, we’ve made incredible progress for the residents of Las Vegas Trail, and a child care development campus is a vital next step in that revitalization,” District 3 City Councilman Michael Crain said. “This project has been a true team effort, and I appreciate the vision of my predecessor, Councilman Bryan Byrd, the team at LVTRise, and Child Care Associates.”

Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker, who has been outspoken about the need for greater access to child care, said the project will add incredible value to the Las Vegas Trail neighborhood.

“For a neighborhood to thrive, there absolutely must be accessible, high-quality options for early learning and care to ensure we can support our working families,” she said. “I’m confident that LVTRise and Child Care Associates are the ideal organizations to bring this vision to life for the residents of Las Vegas Trail.”

Land preparation and construction of the facility is estimated to start late summer/fall of this year and is projected to take 18 months to build and finish out an eight-classroom, approximately 8,600-square-foot child development facility.

Child Care Associates estimates it will serve 100 children through Head Start and Early Head Start.

“This is another step toward our collective commitment to invest in infants and toddlers,” Waddell said. “CCA will be working hand in hand with existing quality child care providers in the area and those we will serve in this community to assure together we are offering the range of child care services needed to provide a whole working day of support for families.”