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By Anne Blythe

The signs on the side of the Community School for People Under Six, a child care and early learning center in Carrboro, were decorated on Thursday with large, brightly colored letters.

“WELCOME,” the top banner stated. “Welcome Governor Roy Cooper” was spelled out across another one.

With sounds of children playing outdoors in the background, Cooper and U.S. Rep. David Price, a Democrat whose congressional district includes Carrboro and all of Orange County, made an announcement outside the 51-year-old school that will be welcomed by many in the child care industry.

Such centers and other early education programs across the state will have access in November to $805 million in federal aid that will be distributed through the North Carolina Child Care Stabilization Grants program.

“This is really exciting for us because it will help shore up our child care centers and help provide them with the assistance they need to retain and attract quality teachers,” Cooper said.

For the next 18 months, centers can apply for quarterly grants that could range from $6,000 to $60,000. The grant program, made possible with funds from the 2021 American Rescue Plan, will be administered by the state Department of Health and Human Services, Division of Child Development and Early Education. The application process opens Oct. 11.

The funds can be used to help cover unexpected losses associated with COVID-19 and make improvements to facilities. They also can be used to boost the salaries of teachers whose low salaries have long been a subject that industry advocates have sought to have addressed.

“North Carolina has a high-quality early-learning network that produces better education, health and economic outcomes,” Susan Gale Perry, DHHS deputy secretary, said at a briefing with reporters outside the Carrboro school. “It consistently puts us ahead of other states, and communities need to invest in it, as the governor said, providing access to more children and keeping it strong.

“We cannot rebuild from this pandemic without investing in early childhood.”

Sound, basic education’

Anna Mercer-McLean, director of Community School for People Under Six, plans to apply for a grant in the coming weeks with hopes of securing funds that she can use to bolster the pay and health care benefits for teachers there now.

Some of her workers make too much to receive Medicaid. Others are on a spouse’s health insurance plan. Some simply can’t afford insurance.

Anne Mercer-McLean, director of Community School for People Under Six in Carrboro, speaks about the North Carolina Child Care Stabilization Grants program. Photo credit: Anne Blythe

Some could benefit from the expansion of Medicaid to some half a million people who could qualify for the federal aid if North Carolina expanded the benefit as the Affordable Care Act allows for such people.

Cooper and Republican lawmakers at the head of the state Senate and House have been at loggerheads about such an expansion for years. Cooper has pushed for it. The GOP lawmakers have resisted.

Since many of her teachers are getting close to retirement age, Mercer-McLean also wants to be able to offer a living wage to new teachers. Many child care teachers have an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, or in some cases master’s degrees. 

At the Community School for People Under Six, which cares for infants and children up to 8 years old during some times of the year, Mercer-McLean currently has 11 staff members caring for 32 children. Before the pandemic, the school had room for 50 children.

The pandemic has exposed many of the country’s frailties, and one of them is how little public infrastructure is invested in early childhood education.

In North Carolina, the State Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the state constitution guarantees children a “right to a sound basic education.” North Carolina, the court found, was not living up to that standard in all school districts and called for progress reports on meeting that obligation, a process that continues to this day.

In September, Superior Court Judge David Lee called out the state Senate and House for proposing budgets that fell short of a Comprehensive Remedial Plan that he ordered the lawmakers, controllers of the state’s purse strings, to follow earlier in the year.

Cooper, whose proposed spending plan called for allocating more to education and teacher raises than either the state Senate or House plans, has been negotiating with Republican lawmakers to find common ground in a budget that the governor could sign into law.

When asked about the status of those negotiations on Thursday, Cooper smiled but offered no details of whether they were close to an agreement.

“We’ve been fighting hard for help with early childhood,” Cooper said. “Right now, we’re having budget negotiations and we want to make sure we invest in early childhood because it’s part of a sound basic education for children.”

Critical to a humming economy

Despite the work ahead for the budget negotiators, Mercer-McLean said the North Carolina Child Care Stabilization Grants program is welcome news.

Mercer-McLean said she hopes to receive funds that not only could help her improve the facilities, but also provide access to mental health care for the staff and children.

“I am one child care director, but I can probably speak for all of North Carolina as to what this grant will do for the early childhood programs,” Mercer-McLean said. “We are so grateful for all the work, all the collaboration that’s gone into this grant.”

Price, no stranger to budget negotiations given the current battle in Washington between and within the parties over the infrastructure plan, said he hoped the pandemic had helped shine a much needed light on how critical child care is to the economy.

President Joe Biden and his administration have put forward a plan in which no family would have to spend more than 7 percent of their income on child care, but that 10-year proposal has not been put to a vote.

‘We underpay these workers in a disgraceful way’

The child care industry has operated on thin margins for years. Many centers struggle to keep tuition affordable for parents while also paying their workers salaries commensurate to the job they are being asked to do. They are helping to educate and raise North Carolina’s children.

“These are important first steps that will help stabilize the child care industry,” Price said of the $805 million grant program. “These gaps aren’t going to be totally dealt with by this funding and I want to use this occasion to point out the longer term character of these needs. These gaps in America’s care-giving infrastructure are related to the pandemic, but they’re not just pandemic problems, they’re long-term problems. They affect families across our state. So when we say today’s a first step, I think we really mean that. Long-term problems need long-term solutions and significant sustained investments.”

Michele Rivest, senior campaign director for the North Carolina Early Education Coalition, said earlier this year that in 20 counties, the average pay for early childhood educators was barely $10 an hour.

In other counties, the average pay was $11 or $12 an hour.

Mercer-McLean said she was able to pay her staff a bit more, but added that their longevity with the school and level of their education played a role in that.

Price said he would like to see the government invest more.

“Finding affordable and quality safe child care should not break the family budget,” Price said. “At the same time, we need to honor those who chose a career in child care. We underpay these workers in a disgraceful way.

“People who devote themselves to caring for our children, devote themselves to early childhood education, should be able to make ends meet for their own families,” he continued. “These careers should have the dignity and the compensation that they deserve. So both recovery from the pandemic and the long term health of our nation’s economy depend on an equitable child care system that works for everyone.”

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Anne Blythe

Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.