Too little, too late: After deadline, child care funding meets only a fraction of the need

Although the General Assembly partially funded the child care grants, it’s not a permanent solution. Cory Vaillancourt photo Although the General Assembly partially funded the child care grants, it’s not a permanent solution. Cory Vaillancourt photo

A stopgap measure that will partially fund expired federal grants for child care providers finally found Gov. Roy Cooper’s pen, but advocates maintain that it’s too little, too late — and just kicks the can down the road for another five months. 

“All we’re doing is delaying,” said Rep. Lindsey Prather (D-Buncombe). “And it’s not nearly enough — $300 million is what they said they needed, and there’s no plan for what comes next.” 

The North Carolina Child Care Stabilization grants, a component of President Joe Biden’s 2021 American Rescue Plan Act that pumped $1.3 billion into the state’s child care system over three years to spur economic recovery in the wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic, expired on July 1.

Despite knowing about the deadline for three years, the Republican-led General Assembly did nothing to avoid it until a series of unsuccessful last-minute maneuvers at the end of June.

In February, prior to the expiration of the grants, the results of a provider survey promised severe consequences if the funding wasn’t replenished. Nearly nine in 10 respondents said they’d have to increase rates. More than six in 10 said they‘d expect difficulty in recruiting and retaining quality child care staff. Almost three in ten said they’d have close immediately, thus eliminating roughly 100,000 of the state’s 400,000 available child care slots.

The child care system as a whole is plagued by high costs, low wages and razor-thin profit margins, despite being a critical component of economic development — employers won’t relocate to a place where quality affordable child care isn’t reliable.

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Jacqueline Wilson, who owns and operates two child care centers in Waynesville, said the grants helped her continue to provide affordable, quality child care services, but that they still weren’t enough.

“It did help,” she told The Smoky Mountain News last month. “I mean, we need more, but it did help.”

In April, Cooper proposed a $200 million budget adjustment that would have partially replenished the grants.

In June, the right-leaning North Carolina Chamber of Commerce advocated for funding by presenting some shocking statistics — namely, that child care issues cost the state’s economy more than $5.6 billion each year.

House members unanimously approved their proposed changes to the budget during a June 18 appropriations committee meeting, including $135 million in non-recurring funds for the Child Care Stabilization grants. Advocates say at least $300 million is needed; in 2022, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, more than $577 million was disbursed.

The Senate’s proposed changes included $300 million for the grants, but when the two chambers failed to agree on a larger budget adjustment bill — House Speaker Rep. Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) and Senate President Pro Tem Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) have been at odds over the larger bill — North Carolina’s working parents and school-age children came away with nothing.

Senate bill 357  was presented to Cooper on June 28, after the House and Senate agreed on $67.5 million to fund the grants through the end of this calendar year, a fraction of previous funding levels.

When the General Assembly is in session, the governor has 10 days either to sign a ratified bill, to veto it or to do nothing at all. If the governor does nothing, the bill becomes law — the opposite of what happens in the federal government when the President utilizes their “pocket veto” power.

Cooper signed the bill on July 8.

 “This legislation provides critical but limited grants to help keep childcare centers open for the next few months,” he said in a statement that day. “However legislators need to do much more for parents, businesses and children by extending these grants through 2025, investing in our nationally recognized NC Pre-K and investing more in quality early childhood education. Our children’s future and our economy depend on it.”

The funding, intended for the first two quarters of the 2024-25 fiscal year, will run out in December, giving the General Assembly another five months to figure out a permanent solution to a problem it couldn’t solve in three years.

Prather said she didn’t have much confidence the General Assembly would be able to avoid another child care crisis by Christmas.

“There seems to be a complete lack of awareness just how pervasive this issue is,” she said. “This impacts every corner of our state, and it just blows my mind that this is not our top priority.”

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