The Asheville-based nonprofit Dogwood Health Trust released a report it funded about early childhood education in Western North Carolina July 21. The 66-page report depicts the landscape for working parents of children younger than 6 in WNC, early childhood education options and the education level and compensation of early childhood education providers.
Dogwood commissioned the Child Care Services Association, a statewide nonprofit that advocates for affordable, accessible, high-quality early education, to create the report. According to DHT spokesperson Erica Allison, the document represents the first early childhood education study focused exclusively on WNC.
The report focuses on early childhood education in the region as of February 2022. Its data comes from two previous CCSA efforts, a 2019 workforce study and a 2021-22 study of care for infants and toddlers based on North Carolina census data.
Frédérique Yova, CCSA researcher and Amy Duffy, who manages the nonprofit’s T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood North Carolina Scholarship Program and also worked on the study, presented highlights of the report at an informational webinar Aug. 2.
The study covered the 18 WNC counties served by Dogwood, subdividing them into three sections — west, central and east — for purposes of data presentation. Madison, Haywood, Buncombe, Henderson and Transylvania counties comprise the central region. (The Qualla Boundary was not included in the study, as the area did not have any licensed early childhood education programs.)
Kids, parents and poverty
As of February, researchers found that roughly 49,800 children younger than 6 lived in WNC, with 54% in the central region. Among those children, 59% lived with two working parents or a sole parent who works; more than half of such children lived in the central region. Approximately 16,000 WNC children — or nearly half of children younger than 6 living with working parents — are younger than 3.
Among all children younger than 6, the study estimates that 22% live in families with poverty or low incomes. (Dogwood based its assessment of low income on guidelines from the National Center for Children in Poverty, which calculates that a family of four would need to make nearly twice the federal poverty level of $27,479 to meet all its basic needs.)
More than half of the 400 child care centers in WNC are located in the central region, with 88 centers enrolling children younger than and 152 enrolling children ages 3-5. (The central region also has the highest number of home-based programs, known as family child care, with 28 total options.) Based on 2019 data, programs in the central region were about evenly split between nonprofit, for-profit and public (such as Head Start) child care centers.
The central region also had the highest number of four- and five-star programs — 25% and 51% of the region’s programs, respectively — in WNC. Ratings of early childhood education centers are granted by the state Division of Child Development and Early Education.
An aging workforce
There were 2,782 people employed in early childhood education in the area covered by Dogwood as of February. Teaching staff at child care centers comprise the majority of those workers.
Based on 2019 data about WNC’s central region, the majority of center directors and teaching staff are white women with a median age in their 40s. The majority of family child care providers, however, are women who identify as people of color with a median age of 56.
Among center directors in the central region, 91% hold an associate degree or higher, while 63% and 55% of teaching staff and family child care providers, respectively, have the same credentials.
Child care costs represent a considerable burden to families, the study found. “In February 2022, the market rates for 5-star centers across all Dogwood counties was more than $800 per month for children under three and about $700 per month for children three to five,” the authors write. “This would represent an annual budget of $8,400 to $9,600 for one child, or half of the budget of a single parent living with one child at the poverty threshold.”
The study also noted that families living below the federal poverty level may access child subsidy vouchers if certain criteria are met. In the central region, 2,247 children were receiving such subsidies as of February.
Pay disparity is stark among early childhood education employees in the central region, the Dogwood study found. Directors earn an average of $20.26 per hour, while the teaching staff earns an average of $12 per hour. Among family child care providers, the average pay was $8.
The 2022 living wage rate in Buncombe County is $17.70 per hour, according to Just Economics, an Asheville nonprofit that calculates the true cost of living.
Regarding benefits, 57% of centers in the central region offered fully or partially paid health insurance, 80% offered paid time off for sick leave, 41% offered disability insurance, and 53% offered retirement benefits. Of teaching staff in the central region, 23% had no health insurance, and 40% had used public assistance such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in the past three years.
Duffy from CCSA spoke of the need for such teachers to be “well-educated and well-compensated” and said supporting higher education for this workforce is essential. The nonprofit’s T.E.A.C.H. program supports debt-free higher education among the early childhood education workforce through the distribution of scholarships and is available to people who either live or work in WNC.
The full report and webinar are available at avl.mx/bwq.