Jerletha McDonald knows firsthand the difficulty of finding good child care. Sixteen years ago, her schedule was intense because of the hours she put in at work and in college. 

She found the only child care center in Arlington open late for her three children. When it closed at 7 p.m., she sent her kids to her mother’s home so she could keep chugging away to support her family. But deep down she wanted to raise her children instead of letting others do it for her. That’s when she decided to start her career in child care. Today, McDonald is the founder and CEO of Arlington DFW Child Care Professionals.

“I’ve been a parent who had to figure it out, and I figured it out. And now that I know, what I do is implement what I know into what I teach because no one taught me,” said McDonald, who trains child care providers.

Who’s on the committee?

The Blue Ribbon Committee on child care has 16 members representing a cross section of professions and community leaders. Here they are:

  • Rose Bradshaw, North Texas Community Foundation (co-chair)
  • Alfreda Norman, The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas (co-chair)
  • Jay Chapa, J Chapa Strategic Solutions
  • Pete Geren, The Sid Richardson Foundation
  • Dr. Jessica Gomez, Momentous Institute
  • Chris Huckabee, Huckabee, Inc
  • Dr. Elva LeBlanc, Tarrant County College
  • Courtney Lewis, BanCorp South
  • Jerletha McDonald, Arlington DFW Child Care
  • Winjie Tang Miao, Texas Health Resources
  • Jeremy Smith, The Rainwater Charitable Foundation
  • Margaret Spellings, Texas 2036
  • Katy Magruder, PNC Bank
  • Drexell Owusu, Dallas Foundation
  • Terese Stevenson, Rees-Jones Foundation
  • Ebony Jones, Teach for America – Fort Worth

McDonald will bring her knowledge and more than a decade of experience as a child care provider to a new group tasked with changing early childhood education in Tarrant County. She is one of 16 community leaders part of the Blue Ribbon Action Committee on Child Care. Officials announced the appointees during a Fort Worth City Council meeting on March 29.

The committee has leaders from Fort Worth and surrounding areas. More than half of the appointees are women and over 50% are people of color. They are tasked with exploring potential solutions to turn the tide on child care, a high-demand industry plagued with low pay for workers. The committee is expected to guide some federal stimulus dollars to improve outcomes from young children, parents and child-care educators.

“We take care of children, we employ women, we are business owners, and we make it possible for other women and men to go out there and work in the workforce. That’s why this is so important, and that’s why we need to get this right,” McDonald said.

The committee’s priorities include: 

  • Expanding and improving quality early education infrastructure.
  • Building a sustainable pipeline of early educators.
  • Investing in community-based child care and having public and private options available for pre-kindergarten.
  • Transforming the cost model into one that is sustainable.

Trying to rethink how early childhood education works is a big task. Kara Waddell, CEO of Child Care Associates, compares it to being handed a box of letters and told to write a dictionary from scratch.

“It’s complicated,” she said.

Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley and Mayors Mattie Parker of Fort Worth and Jim Ross of Arlington announced the creation of the child care committee in November.

The committee is expected to listen to parents and child-care educators as it considers policy proposals. 

The committee is scheduled to meet for four work sessions throughout the remainder of the year. At each of the meetings, the committee will get a deep dive into each of its four priorities and consider proposed recommendations. 

Tarrant County has had similar efforts in the past. More than 50 years ago, the precursor to the United Way of Tarrant County formed a plan for child care for the area because it was a free-for-all at the time.

“We’re in a similar place today,” Waddell said.

Federal stimulus dollars

Funding is expected from the Tarrant County government, as well as the cities of Fort Worth and Arlington, Waddell said. 

In March, the Tarrant County Commissioners Court allocated $45 million to Child Care Associates. The funding comes from part of the county’s $408 million in stimulus funding. Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley previously told the Report part of the county’s stimulus dollars would be used on early childhood development.

“We’ve assembled this team of local thought leaders, policy experts, and key stakeholders to help us transform once-in-a-lifetime federal recovery funds into long-term, strategic investments that expand access to early learning and child care for all Tarrant County families,” Whitley said in a statement.

Fort Worth already has set aside $7 million to Child Care Associates to set up three early childhood learning centers. The city received more than $173.7 million from the American Rescue Plan Act.

The Texas Workforce Commission also has $4.4 billion in stimulus funds available for child care providers across the state.

“We are getting dollars to stabilize our child care businesses, but we need a plan. That’s what the Blue Ribbon Committee is for,” Waddell said.

Funds from the American Rescue Plan Act have to be spent by Dec. 31, 2026.

‘We hit the iceberg’

Demand for child care has been high in recent years. Yet, the industry does not have enough workers, and child care providers cannot offer higher salaries or else risk pricing out many low-income parents. And this was all happening before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The average child care worker hourly salary is $11.97 in the Fort Worth area, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Fort Worth-Dallas area has 14,960 child-care workers.

The average cost of child care for an infant in Texas is $9,324 annually. For a 4-year-old child, that figure decreases to $7,062. The high costs means child care is often out of reach for low-wage workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute

“Child care was broken before COVID, but, with COVID, we hit the iceberg,” Waddell said. “The scale and intensity of the problems that they’re having just escalated tremendously.”

For McDonald, the key for the future of child care is trying to make it affordable and high quality for parents while also ensuring workers are getting equitable salaries and benefits. The two issues are linked and cannot be discussed without one another, she said.

“We need to find ways to merge both to make it affordable for the parent, but also affordable for the provider to provide the necessary care,” McDonald said.

Other issues have been spun out of the child care problem. The number of women working is at a level not seen since the 1980s. Many women have opted not to return to work because they cannot find affordable, quality child care. 

“That is a huge section of the population that was already underpaid, already underemployed,  and now you’ve added an extra element for them to be less successful,” Mayor Mattie Parker said at a Texas Tribune event on March 25.

McDonald described child care as the lynchpin of the economy. It’s an industry that builds up the current economy by giving people a shot at running a business and also builds up the next economy by educating children at the most important period of their lives.

“We are caring for and educating the next lawyer, the next business owner and leader like myself, the next doctor and the next teacher,” she said.

‘It’s not going away’

Waddell hopes the committee has tangible outcomes on each of its four priorities over the next three years. 

For example, new child care places and improved classrooms for infants and toddlers could be in place in the next few years. All of it would be funded through the stimulus funds allocated to Child Care Associates. The city of Fort Worth plans to fund the construction of child care centers in Stop Six, Riverside and another community that will be determined in the future.

“We don’t nearly have the numbers of classrooms that we need, and that’s something very practical that we can do,” she said.

The committee could also have a plan that helps child-care educators start to earn more money and close a pay gap for them, Waddell said. Having better pay would hopefully attract more people to the profession. 

Another idea Waddell has tossed around to get more early childhood educators is to emulate the Teach for America model and apply it to child care.

Waddell does not see the committee going away anytime soon. Child care will continue to be a pressing issue that local officials must tackle, she said.

“It’s not going away. We can’t have a couple of meetings and feel better,” Waddell said. “Even if we get new resources federally or through the state, the challenges get passed down to the local community to figure it out.” 

McDonald sees child care as the workforce behind the workforce. Without it, many parents cannot return to work as the pandemic appears to be waning. Investing in child care benefits all and puts the nation one step closer to a new sense of normal, she said.

“There is no economic recovery without us,” McDonald said.

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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