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Education

A search for solutions to the child care staffing crisis

There is a staffing crisis for preschools and child care centers and they can’t raise wages without raising the cost for families. In part two of her series, KPBS investigative reporter Claire Trageser looks at potential solutions—which experts agree rely on government intervention.

Second in a two-part series. Read part one here.

Lynn Twork tries to make sense of the most recent guidance from San Diego County on what to do when there’s a positive COVID-19 case in one of her preschool classrooms. She talks like someone stuck in a 16th century hedge maze from Europe.

“So, this is what we have to follow,” said Twork, who is the CEO of Kids On The Go Family Service Center in Chula Vista, she holds up a densely-worded flow chart patterned in a tree diagram. “If they have close contact, and are unvaccinated, including people who have been previously infected, including within the last 90 days and those who are partially vaccinated.”

She trailed off while tracing her finger on the chart.

“It's just insane,” she said. “Look at this. It goes in a circle, and always ends up with, ‘stay home.’”

And it’s not just students staying home, but Twork’s staff too. It got so bad that she decided to close her child care center for a week. The staffing crunch is nothing new — it’s been a struggle since the pandemic first hit two years ago.

RELATED: San Diego child care centers struggle with staffing crisis

The pool of qualified applicants for these jobs is very small, even though Twork has set the starting pay at pay 25% above minimum wage and includes benefits.

Many providers can only offer staff close to minimum wage, and if they raised the pay, they’d have to raise prices for families, which might mean families would leave. The result is a vicious cycle that keeps the industry in perpetual state of crisis.

Big ideas and political realities

There are potential solutions on the horizon, but they won’t happen without significant action by lawmakers in Washington D.C. and Sacramento.

Topping this list is President Joe Biden’s massive Build Back Better plan. The $1.7-trillion proposal is a generational effort to fight climate change and strengthen the nation’s social safety net. It would be a game-changer for preschools.

RELATED: What Biden's 'Build Back Better' plan can do for the nation

The centerpiece of Biden’s early education plan would be universal and free preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds and subsidies ensuring that families pay no more than 7% of their income on child care.

It would also include a requirement that child care and preschool staff be paid the same amount as kindergarten teachers. This, of course, would lead to much higher labor costs for providers. But they’d be offset by increased revenues because many children would be in the system, said Kim McDougal, the CEO of the San Diego County YMCA Child care Resource Service.

“If we're getting cash to be able to select the kind of care that best meets the needs of our families, that infuses more revenue into the child care system and it creates more locations that are fully enrolled with a continuous and dedicated funding stream,” she said. “It really changes the equation and builds the stability for the system.”

The bill would also use a “mixed delivery model” for preschool, meaning that some of the child care programs would be run by the government, but there would also be funding for existing child care businesses and Head Start programs, strengthening the overall child care system, said Donna Sneeringer, the chief strategy officer at the Sacramento-based nonprofit Child Care Resource Center.

”What would really help in the workforce is continued wage enhancement and wage augmentation to really make this a desirable job, a job that people can build a career in and build a future in while they are helping to raise our young kids.”

However, the big plans coming out of Washington D.C. need Republican votes or a willingness by all Democrats to eliminate the filibuster so it could pass without Republican support. Both of those outcomes are highly unlikely, meaning that Build Back Better, even if it does pass in some form, will not have many of these grand plans for early childhood.

State and local initiatives

Yet, Sneeringer said not all hope is lost. There are also efforts at the state level to change how providers who work in state-funded programs are paid. That wouldn’t address the needs of private providers, but it’s a start, she said.

Children play at the onsite childcare center at the offices of SAY San Diego in this undated photo.
SAY San Diego
A child plays at the onsite childcare center at the offices of SAY San Diego in this undated photo.

McDougal said there are also conversations about a local ballot measure that would help more families in San Diego County pay for child care. Recently, voters in San Francisco approved a tax on commercial rents to fund child care and Portland, Ore. approved a measure to expand free preschool. McDougal said the San Diego measure could be similar.

“And that money then goes to increased provider pay,” she said. “That is what many communities use it for, is kind of bridging that gap between what a parent can pay and what it really costs to provide high quality care and have a living wage.”

The YMCA is helping to plan for a countywide ballot measure with the Children First Collective San Diego in 2024, said Courtney Baltiyskyy, the director of advocacy and strategic partnership at YMCA Community Support Services.

“It will cost about $3 million to get it on the ballot to create local, dedicated funding for children, and we would ask that part of the mechanism for that revenue is that it goes to supplement provider pay,” Baltiyskyy said.

Another small thing that would help providers like Twork is changing the educational requirements for child care teachers. Right now, most teachers are required to have 12 credits of early childhood education from a college or community college, which Twork said weeds out good people.

“Just because you have the degree and the knowledge on the book, it doesn't make you qualified,” she said. “And that's what really drives me nuts, because I have to pass up these fantastically qualified people that have the heart, they have the knowledge.”

McDougal with the YMCA said that when college graduates get degrees in early childhood education, they are more likely to become kindergarten teachers than work at a preschool.

“You can do a little more schooling, get your credentialing, you can become a kindergarten teacher and you can make seven times more than you would as a child care provider,” she said. “So it's almost a disincentive to get your education and then stay in the early care in the education field because you can be compensated so much more in the K-12 system.”

Another effort in San Diego County is to help employers provide child care on site. SAY San Diego, a nonprofit that focuses on child and family development, also set up a child care center at its offices for both the community and its employees. It charges rates on a sliding scale, and has so far been a big success, said Nancy Gannon Hornberger, the CEO of SAY San Diego.

“Parents benefit, whether they're teleworking or in person on the job, they can work without distraction or guilt, so they know their children are safe and also learning and thriving,” she said. “And then employers can attract and retain talented parents, parents of young children, by offering this very desirable benefit.”

Currently SAY San Diego is working with local employers to set up child care centers of their own.

The YMCA’s Baltiyskyy said the important thing is that something happen. She describes the status quo as a road to ruin, both economically and socially.

“In a scenario where we don't see stronger action in California and Build Back Better doesn't pass, we will be in a scenario where the ‘she-session’ will continue, more female caregivers and parents will continue to leave the workforce,” she said. “And in 10 years’ time, if we're having these conversations, we’ll be saying, ‘why have we reverted to 1960 statistics about women in the workforce?’ It all comes down to access to quality, affordable child care.”