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Opinion

Hating on our babies: North Carolina’s shortsighted, cheapskate childcare policies

Credit: iStock

by Rob Schofield, NC Newsline
April 9, 2024

If there is one basic thing that an overwhelming majority of North Carolinians of all incomes, political parties, races, religions, and regions have in common in these divided times, it’s this: a love of babies.

Oh sure, some folks aren’t naturals when it comes to holding infants, or making baby talk, or changing diapers, but for most people, the predisposition to be drawn to and care for helpless and innocent infants and toddlers is a powerful force. Millions of years of evolution have helped assure that the instinct to love and protect babies is something that most adult humans find irresistible. Our elected leaders regularly name laws for babies lost to crime or disease.

Weirdly and unfortunately, however, the instinct can often go missing in action – especially when the babies in question are out of sight or aren’t a part of one’s immediate family. History is replete with stories of tyrants who doted on their own children and grandchildren, even as they unflinchingly condemned others – babies of the wrong race, religion, or gender, babies born into poverty – to great suffering and an early death.

And while one likes to think that we 21st-century Americans have made at least some progress on this front, the examples of government-approved or enabled abuse and neglect of babies remain maddeningly plentiful.

This hard reality was brought home to me again recently as I was preparing to conduct an interview with the director of a Charlotte preschool for the NC Newsline radio show/podcast News & Views. Just a few moments before the interview was to commence, the director was forced suddenly to bow out. The reason: One of her classroom teachers had called in sick and in the chronically short-staffed world of childcare, even one sick teacher can throw off an entire school. The director had to step in and handle the class.

And this minor but all-too-familiar incident serves to highlight a simple truth about childcare in our state: It is, on the whole, lousy.

There’s a very good argument to be made that the United States should guarantee free and universal, high-quality early childhood education from birth onward to all American children.

Nations that invest in the care of young children when their minds and bodies are still developing see vastly improved outcomes later on.

Sadly, however, the U.S. is not on that list. Instead, it consigns millions of infants, toddlers, and pre-Kindergartners each year to a patchwork of private providers of widely varying quality – most of them surviving on a financial shoestring.

And here in 2024 North Carolina, this situation is especially acute. Across the state, thousands of childcare providers operate in almost perpetual crisis – a crisis in which barely-making-it schools employ overworked and grievously underpaid teachers to serve stressed-out parents who have enormous difficulty finding quality care they can afford. Meanwhile, thousands of struggling families wait extended periods for even a modest public subsidy.

A big influx of federal aid during the pandemic helped stabilize this fragile and threadbare system somewhat. Teachers in some schools are now making something close to decent fast food restaurant wages and it’s a sign of how bad things were and are that this is widely seen as progress.

But as is the case in so many areas of core public service these days — K-12 schools, psychiatric hospitals, prisons – the pay and working conditions remain, on the whole, pathetically inadequate, and uncompetitive.

And soon, remarkably, things could get much worse. Thanks to conservatives in Congress, those pandemic relief dollars will soon stop flowing and this has given rise to what’s being called a “childcare cliff” that will hit the state in June.

As NC Newsline’s Lynn Bonner reported recently, a February North Carolina Child Care Resource and Referral Council survey found that 88% of childcare providers said they expect to need to increase parent fees when the federal money runs out. Forty percent said they would have to raise parent fees immediately. About half said they would lose administrative and teaching staff and about two-thirds said they would have trouble hiring new employees with comparable experience and education.

And remarkably, nearly one-third of the programs surveyed said they would have to close within a year. That’s equivalent to more than 1,500 programs and close to 92,000 childcare and early education slots.

And this is obviously unacceptable.

Fortunately, it’s not at all necessary. As is the case in so many other areas, the North Carolina General Assembly has the money it needs at its disposal to fill the funding gap, and the ability to easily raise plenty more. Indeed, had the legislature not recklessly slashed public investments by more than a third over the last decade-plus, the state might well have already been in a position to have constructed the kind of a truly adequate, 21st century early childhood education system that our babies, parents, and economy so desperately need.

For now, though, when it comes to at least holding on to what we have, failure to act is simply not an option.

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: info@ncnewsline.com. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

This story is republished from NC Newsline under a Creative Commons license. Read the original story.