Guest columnist Jeremy Gantz: The end of child care as we know it

  • A teddy bear is left in a child’s cubby at Kidsview Academy Preschool and Daycare in Enfield, N.H., Saturday, May 9, 2020. The child care center closed in mid-March and will not reopen.   Valley News/James M. Patterson

For the Gazette
Published: 7/17/2020 12:13:40 PM

The future of the country’s patchwork early education system looks increasingly bleak. It was already unaffordable and inadequate for many working parents before the coronavirus arrived; now it’s in danger of being demolished as the pandemic wears on. Why? Because unless the federal government acts soon, COVID 19-related closures and newly mandated state regulations will financially ruin most preschools and child care centers. And that will hobble efforts to bring the U.S. economy roaring back to life.

You don’t need a MBA to understand why disaster looms for so many preschools and child care centers (and the working parents who rely on them). Just look at my school.

Nonotuck Community School in Northampton opened its doors on Monday, July 6 after being closed since March. Our enrollment ceiling is now 33% lower, but our operating costs are now higher due to new sanitation requirements. With tuition revenue way down, we’re looking at a huge projected deficit for the coming school year, which we plan to fill with a mixture of federal loans, increased tuition rates and emergency savings.

We’re lucky: Many preschools and early education centers can’t save anything due to razor-thin margins. Only those lucky enough to have substantial savings on hand to burn through are likely to survive well into 2021.

To be clear: I am not taking issue with the new regulations from the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care (EEC), as onerous as they are. (But delays in their release and multiple subsequent changes have not exactly helped facility directors.) The problem is that EEC’s rules are, in effect, unfunded mandates that will eventually destroy the organizations whose children they aim to protect.

Exactly how many preschools and child care facilities will close absent adequate federal support is hard to say exactly. But the best estimates to understand what’s at risk are very depressing. In late April, a Center for American Progress analysis found that about half of all child care slots in the country — 4.5 million — could disappear after being closed for more than two weeks without government aid. In late June, the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center estimated that $690 million in aid is needed just to help early education centers in the state successfully reopen over the next five months.

If you’ve read this far, you probably have children. But make no mistake: The collapse of the country’s early education industry is everyone’s problem. It will profoundly hamper efforts to reopen the economy, in Massachusetts and beyond. And it will further exacerbate racial and class inequities. Less likely to be able to work from home, lower-income families and families of color were more acutely affected by child care center closures early on. Permanent closures will be a nightmare for working parents unable to improvise solutions through friends and family or hire a nanny. And let’s not forget who will bear the brunt of child care center layoffs: The vast majority of care providers across the country are female, a large portion of whom are people of color.

The pre-pandemic child care status quo was dysfunctional for parents and caregivers alike, of course. Massachusetts has the highest child care costs of any state in the nation: Annual infant care is on average about $21,000, while care for a 4-year-old is around $15,000, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Child care is more expensive than in-state college tuition in 28 states and Washington D.C., as early education expert Elliot Haspel notes in his disturbing and useful book, “Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It.” But high prices don’t translate into high wages: Median annual pay for U.S. child care workers last year was just over $24,000, according to the federal government.

Beyond high costs and low wages, there’s a basic supply and demand problem. In Massachusetts, there are 750,000 early education-aged children, but just 250,000 child care slots — about one-fifth of which are subsidized by EEC. A shocking 20,000 children from low-income families are on a state waiting list for subsidies, William Eddy, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Early Education and Care, told state lawmakers at a July 1 Education Commission hearing.

Dysfunctional as the current system is, losing it should be unthinkable. What’s the solution? Because the scale of the problem is too big for states to tackle piecemeal, federal action is required to stave off a wave of permanent closures in the coming months. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have proposed a handful of bills to keep the sector alive, including the Child Care Is Essential Act. It would create a $50 billion stabilization grant program for child care centers across the country. To put that figure in perspective, lawmakers handed $58 billion in grants (and another $25 billion in loans) to the airline industry as part of the $2 trillion CARES Act they passed in late March. The bill contained $3.5 billion for child care providers.

Washington’s inattention to the child care crisis is not surprising: As a society, we’ve long treated early education as an afterthought. The current precarious system reflects that fact. But in the long run, our early education system needs much more than a federal cash infusion. It needs to be reconceived as a common good, free and accessible to all, just like the K-12 system. But lagging behind much of the rest of the world doesn’t seem to bother many Americans very much, as we’ve seen so painfully since the pandemic began.

Jeremy Gantz is president of the board of directors at Nonotuck Community School, a parent cooperative early education and child care center in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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