“Yellowstone” creator Taylor Sheridan grew up so afraid of spiders that even the slightest mention of the eight-legged critter freaked him out. 

When he was in pre-kindergarten, a teacher told his class they would be singing the classic children’s song “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Sheridan warned his teacher he didn’t like spiders and requested another song, but nonetheless the class had to go on. As he remembers it, he snapped, screamed, bit his teacher and was immediately expelled.

That moment resulted in Sheridan and his parents going to a therapist in Dallas who got to the bottom of the problem: His parents fought, yelled at each other and yelled at him. 

“When my wife and I were having a kid, I was thinking, ‘Everything I do will have an impact on that child,’” Sheridan told a crowd during Child Care Associates’ fourth annual investors luncheon at the downtown Omni Hotel.

Reflecting on that moment decades later, Sheridan knows the importance of good quality child care. The Academy Award-nominated writer was the featured speaker at the Oct. 13 event where Child Care Associates President and CEO Kara Waddell unveiled a set of solutions that a group of education leaders have worked on since last year.

The Blue Ribbon Action Committee on Child Care has honed in on three areas: 

  • Create a funding system that is affordable for parents and provides high quality child care.
  • Build child care around working parents.
  • Early educators need financial viability.

“These are critical initial steps,” Waddell said.

‘Pretty darn clear’

Funding for early childhood education is broken, city officials said during the event. Mayor Mattie Parker described current investment on child care as backward.

Waddell wants to bring forward a system that is affordable to parents and provides a living wage to early childhood educators. Last year, Child Care Associates and Workforce Solutions for Tarrant County put $2 million toward boosting up to 1,500 child-care educators’ salaries for six months. 

Even with low wages for workers, child care is out of reach for many parents. 

The Economic Policy Institute found that infant care for one child would take up nearly 16% of a median family’s income in Texas. The average cost of child care for a 4-year-old Texan is $7,062 a year or $589 every month. Infant care is more expensive. The average annual cost is $9,324, or $777 per month.

“It’s pretty darn clear from the data that parents cannot afford child care,” Waddell said.

Child Care Associates has been working with Rice University to launch a pilot program where an early childhood care center’s costs are offset so that educators receive better salaries and parents can afford the service.

Child Care Associates received more than $50 million in federal stimulus funds from Tarrant County and other local governments. The city of Fort Worth contributed $7 million to set up three early childhood learning centers, with the first coming to Las Vegas Trail.

While those dollars have stabilized child care here, Waddell said, more needs to be done. Waddell and Parker plan to push the Texas Legislature in early 2023 to provide additional funding to early childhood education.

Working parents focus, better wages

Still, other issues remain. Child care needs to be built around working parents, Waddell said. Currently, many school systems in Fort Worth and the county offer early childhood education. While that is good, Waddell sees an issue with that: their hours tend to ignore the needs of working parents.

“We forgot to design our system of pre-kindergarten around the needs of working parents. Instead, we designed a system that works pretty well for schools,” she said.

More than 30 years ago, Texas was among the first states to invest in early childhood education. Texas required independent school districts to offer half-day preschool services under certain requirements

More states followed, but have put policies in place that better fund early childhood education, Waddell said. Texas gives most of its money to schools to run pre-kindergarten, while other states also give money to community-based programs.

Waddell wants Texas to do both.

“We need a mixed delivery system for pre-kindergarten, which just means quality schools and a quality child care program, whether it’s in a home or a center,” she said.

Early childhood education is dealing with a lack of educators, Waddell said. The field has long featured high turnover and low wages. Child care needs a steady pipeline that creates early childhood educators who earn a liveable salary and a pathway with professional development and higher wages.

‘Educate our way out’

Improving early childhood education has been a key issue for Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley and Commissioner Roy Charles Brooks. Child Care Associates honored the two county leaders. 

While both men are of different political parties — Whitley is a Republican and Brooks is a Democrat — they ended up at the same place on the issue after coming at it from different directions, Brooks said.

For too long, elected officials have ignored putting the necessary resources toward early childhood education, Brooks said. That has only worsened generational poverty, he added.

“The way out is to educate our way out,” Brooks said.

Whitley, who will leave his position at the end of the year, stressed the need to have free, high-quality child care in Tarrant County. This is the only way to level the playing field for children and to provide them an opportunity to get on a path toward success, he said.

Whitley pointed to the age when all of this needs to start: zero. Starting right after birth, he said, would set up a brighter future for all children.

“That’s what we’ve got to get to,” the county judge said.

Sheridan, the actor turned movie and television writer, acknowledged he is by no means an early childhood education expert. However, he knows that child care is important for all parents and children.

“It’s not charity,” Sheridan said. “It’s a tremendous investment in our future.”

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....