In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Child Care Associates President and CEO Kara Waddell discusses the state of child care in Fort Worth and Tarrant County as the region enters a new stage of the pandemic. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.

Sanchez: Why has child care become such an important topic right now? 

Waddell: Child care lies at the intersection of two really important issues: educating our children and the new world of work. Now that work is fundamentally changing, more eyeballs are now paying attention to the challenges facing child care. You only get one chance at childhood. Parents of all economic means feel like they get this one chance to put their child on the right trajectory for success.

Sanchez: There’s no do-over.

Waddell: Yeah, and that’s ultimately why child care and early education really matters is that parents really care, which is a fantastic thing. But it’s critical now. It means economic development, our recovery efforts. Female participation in the labor force has plummeted after COVID; 6,000 men stopped working in comparison to 341,000 women. There’s just these crazy numbers where we realize child care really matters to business, really matters to families and really matters to our economics. 

Sanchez: COVID has opened everything up on this issue, too. 

Waddell: It sucked the air out of the room.

I keep saying that, in many ways, there hasn’t been a design for what our country, our community, like, what do we want to do with children 0 to 5? What makes sense? We’ve learned more about brain development and other pieces. 

But we’ve been coasting in the waters of early education and care, knowing that we’ve got big problems. But with COVID, we hit the iceberg. 

It’s like there was an iceberg, we knew there was an iceberg and we just struck it. Fort Worth is not alone in just scrambling and saying, “What are we going to do for families? Who needs to help?” And everyone’s at the table trying to figure out where do we go from here.

Sanchez: You’ve just touched on this: There’s such a great demand for child care, but wages are low. It’s the opposite of what you would expect. You think greater demand means higher wages. How do we even begin to tackle that problem? 

Waddell: It’s so hard. It’s a broken cost model, fundamentally. It’s collapsed as an economic model. 

What we know is that parents cannot afford to pay anymore and child care businesses cannot afford to earn any less. But we have to pay child care workers a lot more; $10 to $12 an hour was kind of the average wages before COVID. Child care educators are not going to come back for that level of wages.

It’s a troubling time to figure out exactly how do we build the child care that families need. Usually in an economic model, if there’s a high demand, there’s a greater supply that you’ve come up with, and that’s not where we are.

Child care is similar to the challenges faced by farming. So food insecurity in the United States: a family who’s hungry may need a food voucher or may need a food pantry. But in addition to that, we fund the farm in America. We help support the farm. There’s farm subsidies and others because we care about the farm and we care about the food that the farm produces.

That’s where child care is. We care about families getting equal access, but we’re going to have to start supporting the farm and actually figure out how do we make this work. If schools are needed in a community, we don’t panic. We have a bonding structure in which we build the needed schools at the levels that we need.

We don’t have any bonding powers for children 0 to 5. It’s a tricky sector to be a part of. 

Sanchez: What are some interesting ideas out there for trying to even begin tackling this? Like you said, it’s just so big and so all encompassing.

Waddell: People have been asking me, how are you going to fix child care? And I said, in some ways it’s like “The Matrix,” like red pill, blue pill. Which pill of reality do you want to really swallow? With COVID, we’ve swallowed the reality pill. Now businesses are like, “What are we going to do to fix child care?”

Our government leaders at all levels, national as well as local, are saying, “Where do we go from here?” The initial thing you have to do is figure out what are the real costs and how much does it actually cost to pay someone a good wage. 

We pay Buc-ee’s cashiers more than we pay child care workers. We train nail technicians in Texas more than we train our infant teachers. Let’s not do that anymore. 

What would be the real cost if we paid a high-quality early childhood teacher a normal wage and build a high-quality early childhood care? Then you have to figure out who’s going to pay for it because parents can’t afford anything higher. 

The reality is we’re going to have to come up with a way that we offset some of those fixed costs for child care, so that it’s at a reasonable cost point that families of different means can buy it. We are working with Texas Policy Lab at Rice University with a group of economists, and we’re doing cost modeling right now to be able to say these are the real costs. And then you have to begin to say how do we create a market mechanism to pay. for it.

Sanchez: What is Child Care Associates’ role in all of this? 

Waddell: Fifty-three years ago there was a crisis in child care in our community. The precursor to the United Way, the United Fund, pulled together data, leaders came together and said, “What are we going to do?”

They built new infrastructure. But they also said we need to build an organization of scale that can help take these issues on long term, and that’s where Child Care Associates came from. 

So 50 years ago, we were the largest child care provider. Today, we still provide early education, with 20 campuses for our most at-risk children and families. We partner with five school districts. 

But in addition to running early education, we really help support the child care system. We help pay for 12,000 working families to access quality child care. We’re helping the thousand licensed programs across the community. That side of the house has suddenly become particularly important. People want the information, the data. We’ve sort of become the keeper of the early childhood system and helping design where do we go from here? We’re really privileged to be given that opportunity. 

Sanchez: One thing that’s really interesting right now is that Fort Worth ISD’s bond dedicated money for something like this for early childhood learning. Do you see that as the future of child care here in Tarrant County? Or is it more of that public investment, or is it kind of this hybrid where you have both public and private trying to tackle this issue? 

Waddell: We were thrilled that Fort Worth ISD recognized that education happens before students walk in the school buildings, recognizing that infant and toddler work is really critical in the community. Hats off to them for that. We’ve got more school districts considering it. We’re excited for that piece. 

Not every parent will not want to have their young children in a school. Others are going to want to have their child in a religious-based program. That’s very common with young children. We think of it as a patchwork quilt. There will be small businesses, nonprofits, schools — everyone can have an important part to play. 

But instead of it just being random, the way it’s been the past few years, let’s have a design. Patchwork quilts can be really lovely when you would start off with a thoughtful design, and that’s what we think needs to happen. We can’t create pre-K and not think about what we’re going to do for infants and toddlers. So I think you’re going to see a mix on lots of things. Probably some market consolidation too.

I think I do think you’ll see some private equity moving into the space, if there’s national funding. 

Sanchez: It’s really all hands on deck. 

Waddell: And that’s what’s exciting is that everyone now cares in a special way about this. Child Care Associates is thrilled to just be a part of that and bringing together some of our smartest minds in the community to figure out where do we go from here.

Sanchez: It’s been about two months since the announcement that child care workers in Tarrant County would get that pay boost, and there was a new committee that was also announced to start looking at this from a policy level to try to see where there could be private, public dollars invested. What have been some of the results since that announcement? 

Waddell: Out of 183 Texas Rising Star programs – these are our quality child care programs in the community – 174 selected to participate and were chosen. We have 95% participation. It was a need and they agreed. The child care providers commented to us, “I felt heard. I felt like someone finally responded to us.”That’s a starting point for all of this: listening to teachers, listening to early educators, as well as listening to parents.

That’s what the blue ribbon action committee intends to do is to make sure that we’re really listening. The blue ribbon action committee is going to say, ”Where do we go from here? What are our next steps?”

Sanchez: Anything else you would like to add?

Waddell: 2022 will be a really big year for the early education space. 

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. 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.

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Jacob SanchezEnterprise Reporter

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University....

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