Fort Worth Report | Fixing the broken child care industry will require a significant increase in public funding, according to Tarrant County leaders.
The county is one of the few bright spots for child care in the nation, but still faces affordability and workforce issues. However, during a Fort Worth Report panel Aug. 16 at Texas Wesleyan University, experts in child care, business and nonprofits expressed optimism that a possible solution is coming in Tarrant County.
“We have to use our existing public dollars differently,” said Kara Waddell, Child Care Associates president and CEO.
Kara Waddell, president and CEO of Child Care Associates, speaks during a Fort Worth Report conversation on child care on Aug. 16, 2023, at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)
Rose Bradshaw, president and CEO of the North Texas Community Foundation, compared the cost of her daughter’s tuition at the University of Texas at Austin to child care.
The average annual cost for infant care in Tarrant County is about $11,000. A year’s tuition at UT-Austin’s is about the same.
“It’s really strange how those two numbers actually sync up so perfectly. But when you think about: Why can my kid go to UT-Austin for $11,000 in tuition? “It’s because there’s a level of subsidy that happens on our university level that we don’t find in the earliest years,” said Bradshaw, co-chair of a Tarrant County blue ribbon committee on child care.
Nearly 12% of the average Tarrant County family’s income is dedicated to child care — a percentage that is higher for lower-income families, Bradshaw said.
“The math doesn’t work,” she said. “At its core, it’s unaffordable, inaccessible and it’s not working.”
Shawneequa Blount is the director of child care innovation at the Institute to Advance Child Care. She oversees a pilot program using $25 million in federal pandemic relief funding that could be a trailblazer for how state and local governments can better support and stabilize child care.
“We know if we can get it right here, we can scale it out and be a model for how to fund child care in a healthy way,” Blount said.
Unintended consequence of public pre-K
Amber Scanlan, a member of the Texas Early Learning Council, speaks during a Fort Worth Report conversation on child care on Aug. 16, 2023, at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)
A better child care system will mean rethinking how education is viewed, said Amber Scanlan, a member of Gov. Greg Abbott’s Texas Early Learning Council.
“Child care is not anywhere nearly as subsidized as traditional K-12 or universities,” Scanlan said.
Tax dollars fund K-12 education, but early childhood education is not a big enough part of that equation, Scanlan said. The state has allocated $835 million for early childhood education, according to the Comptroller’s office.
“Education doesn’t start at kindergarten — it starts at birth,” said Scanlan, senior vice president and director of client and community relations at PNC Bank.
Since 1985, Texas has funded half-day pre-K, administered through independent school districts and charters. Pre-K programs typically serve children who are ages 3 and 4.
Bradshaw has advocated for public schools to deliver pre-K, but she says that model doesn’t work for all families.
“They need care before school and after school, and they cannot ferry their kids from one location to another,” Bradshaw said.
Many child care centers, though, act as one-stop shops for families, she said.
Rose Bradshaw, president and CEO of the North Texas Community Foundation, speaks during a Fort Worth Report conversation on child care on Aug. 16, 2023, at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)
The public school system push into pre-K has contributed to the dire state of child care, Blount said.
Blount described 3- to 4-year-old children as the bread and butter of child care providers. Caring and teaching children around that age is more profitable for providers because educators can have larger classes than they would for infants, who require more one-on-one time.
And that means higher expenses for providers — and parents.
“It’s all on the back of parents. It’s a pretty flawed system,” Blount said.
$23 billion lost
Working families and the health of the economy depend on child care, said Sara Redington, chief philanthropy officer of the Miles Foundation.
At least 60% of families rely on child care to work, according to Child Care Associates.
Businesses lose more than $23 billion a year because of child care issues, Redington said.
Sara Redington, chief philanthropy officer for the Miles Foundation, speaks during a Fort Worth Report conversation on child care on Aug. 16, 2023, at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)
The Miles Foundation surveyed 825 parents in 2021 to see what it would take for them to return to work in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most respondents said they needed full-time child care five days a week, Redington said.
Right now, wait lists at many child care centers across Tarrant County are long and getting longer, Redington said. In fact, she has heard some parents get their families on a wait list before they even get pregnant.
Businesses are stepping up to provide family-friendly policies to workers. However, truly fixing child care will require both the private and public sectors working together, Redington said.
“This is a pervasive issue. It’s not just affecting working families and businesses, but our economy as a whole,” Redington said.
Scanlan described child care in one word: complicated.
The current system is a mixture of numerous agencies at the state and county levels. Tarrant County, though, is better at collaborating on child care than most counties in Texas, she said.
That collective buy-in is the secret sauce that makes Tarrant County a child care bright spot, Scanlan said.
“It’s shocking how many people don’t understand the local effort and collaboration to make child care effective,” she said.
Scanlan hopes North Texas can lead the way to find a legislative solution to fix child care.
If not, she expects the status quo of the haves and the have-nots to remain.
Disclosure: The North Texas Community Foundation, Texas Wesleyan University, The Miles Foundation and PNC Bank have been financial supporters of the Fort Worth Report. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.