Proponents of early childhood education programs argue that they have palpable benefits for both children and their parents: Children who participate in those programs experience better overall outcomes, and parents who enroll their kids in these programs can continue to work knowing their children are in a safe environment.
“But it’s complicated,” said Rachael Nygaard, Buncombe County’s director of strategic partnerships, during a Board of Commissioners workshop on Jan. 22. “We know that it’s a good thing, but we have a lot of barriers that we face within this sort of fragile and complex system. … There isn’t enough child care to go around, care centers maintain long waitlists, and the care that’s available isn’t always affordable.”
In an effort to broaden access to early childhood education programs, which tend to focus on kids between birth and kindergarten, the Board of Commissioners included the issue on its list of strategic initiatives for 2018. For the workshop, commissioners enlisted the help of a large panel of local education experts to learn more about the obstacles to access to these programs.
Jumping through hoops
One issue is a lack of available child care professionals, and interest in the profession appears to be declining for several reasons — one being the low pay. In a ranking of 2016 teacher salary data by the National Education Association, North Carolina came in at 41st in the nation, with an average salary of $47,941. The average national salary for a preschool teacher is even lower: $33,300 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Enrollment in teacher education programs throughout the state are down 30 percent, said Jacque Penick, executive director of the Verner Center for Early Learning, a nonprofit child care program in Asheville. “There are very limited opportunities in this area for someone to get a birth-to-kindergarten four-year degree,” she said in a presentation at the meeting. “In fact, in Buncombe County there are none.”
Western Carolina University in Cullowhee is the closest college to Buncombe County that offers an early childhood education degree. Appalachian State University in Boone is the next-closest. “Many of the people who desire this degree are currently working,” Penick said. “It makes it a hardship and sometimes impossible to be able to be on-site.”
Jeffrey Konz, dean of social sciences at UNC Asheville, said UNCA used to have a birth-through-kindergarten education program, but the enrollment numbers were unsustainably low, typically at around four to five students a year. The university shelved the program after the faculty member running it accepted a job elsewhere. “So the question for us is thinking about why we couldn’t get students there,” Konz said. “I don’t think it was a question of igniting passion. It really was a question of compensation. So we’ve got to find a way to make this an attractive, long-term profession for folks.”
Brian Repass is the director of the children, family and community partnership department at Community Action Opportunities, an organization that provides resources to people with limited incomes. The organization operates a Head Start program, an early childhood education program that must compete with other school systems for licensed teachers.
Repass said with so few qualified candidates in the job pool, the recruitment process can often be difficult — a problem that was exemplified this fall when Repass’ organization was trying to fill three teaching vacancies. “We interviewed seven potential employees and made offers to six of those, and we had one person accept,” Repass said.
Two of the interviewees who didn’t accept a position were retired teachers with licenses in elementary education and 20 to 30 years of experience. However, in order to teach early childhood education, these teachers would have had to go back to college and take classes to qualify for an exception to get the licenses required to teach in a birth-through-kindergarten program. “We have folks who wanted to work for us who were willing to take our salaries, but when it came down to going back to school after retiring they were really not interested in that,” Repass said.
Enrolling a a child in an early childhood education program can also be very expensive. Depending on the quality of the program and the location, preschool enrollment costs can be several thousand dollars per year — a price range that can be particularly prohibitive in a county like Buncombe. “The salaries in Buncombe are depressed, not just in our field but across the board,” Penick said. “And yet, the cost of doing business, the cost of living here is not depressed … so there’s a big gap between what parents here can afford to pay for high-quality early care and education and what the costs are.”
Finding a solution
So what can Buncombe County do to solve these problems? Commissioners said they hoped the Jan. 22 meeting would be the first step to finding an answer to that question and took the opportunity to gather suggestions from the experts on hand.
“We’re operating in a tight, restricted system that’s broken in some ways and has a lot of limitations,” said Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara. “But we also know because you guys are showing us … there are cracks where there is room to run by working outside the box.”
“I think it’s a community issue,” said Jennifer Bosworth, department chair of the Early Childhood Department at A-B Tech. “It’s not just a government issue, because we’ve got employers who are hiring these parents who had children who are in child care. … So what can we do to leverage those businesses? … Because you guys [the county commission] can’t do it all, you don’t have all the money. The state can’t do it all. We’re clearly not getting the money. It’s a community issue.”
State Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe County, also attended the meeting and said that she hasn’t seen enough motivation in the General Assembly to fix the problems associated with child care. In order to drum up enthusiasm, she believes people need to turn to the voting booths. “If you know people who are Republican, Democrat, independent or unaffiliated who have education as a high priority for themselves and for others, vote for them,” Fisher said. “If there are people running office … who don’t have that as a high priority, don’t vote for them.”