Marco Johnson and his wife, Anya Zelinska, wanted to have a second child — then they checked their child care bills.

Every month, they pay about $900 for their 2 ½-year-old daughter, Lilah, to attend the Montessori School on Camp Bowie in Fort Worth. Another baby would double their child care expenses.

“We literally can’t afford it. There’s just no way,” Johnson said.

Affordability is one of many issues plaguing child care, an industry known for high costs — yet low wages for workers. Child care and early childhood education advocates are hoping the Texas Legislature will put in place sustainable funding so parents and their children can receive high quality care at an affordable price.

Child Care Associates CEO Kara Waddell wants lawmakers to focus on working families. The entire child care system in Texas needs an overhaul so that their needs are met, she said. 

In a study, the Economic Policy Institute found child care costs for one infant is 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. The average annual cost for an infant is $9,324, or $777 per month.

Those figures often leave child care out of reach for many low-income and middle-class families.

To turn that around, Catherine Davis, Child Care Associates’ director of policy, sees funding as the lynchpin to improving child care in Texas. The state needs to establish a sustainable bucket of funding to support quality child care programs, she said. In turn, child care providers could begin offering better salaries for workers.

Since 1985, Texas has funded half-day pre-K, administered through independent school districts and charters. Pre-K programs typically serve children who are 3 and 4.

Besides pre-K, the biggest piece of child care funding is the Child Care Development Block Grant from the federal government. But the funding formula for that is broken and few states have come up with an alternative, Waddell said. That leaves child care providers trying to figure out how to make ends meet while also maintaining affordability. 

“But, at the end of the day, we have to figure out a way to cover that gap that child care providers are experiencing,” Davis said.

‘The true cost of quality’

The key first step, though, is figuring out how much funding Texas needs to better support child care, Davis said. The state spends about $3.5 billion each year in early childhood education programs, according to Start Early, a children’s advocacy group.

“Right now, what parents put in and what the government puts in doesn’t cover the true cost of quality,” Davis said.

The state’s almost $33 billion surplus could provide funding to begin to turn the tide. But Waddell and Davis agreed that would not solve anything because it’s likely any additional dollars from the surplus would be used one time.

“If we’re drawing down new state resources to help fill that gap, we’re going to continue to have a child care system that’s, quite frankly, still in crisis,” Davis said, stressing the state needs sustainable child care funding.

Any additional funding should also help community-based child care providers, according to Child Care Associates. Parents should be able to pick whether they want their child to attend public pre-K or through an early learning program in their communities, Waddell said.

Fort Worth ISD wants funding for universal pre-K

One of Fort Worth ISD’s legislative priorities is to push for funding for universal pre-K. The state has allocated $825 million for early childhood education, according to the Comptroller’s office.

However, if new dollars are infused into the child care system, Waddell wants working parents to weigh in on how they want early childhood education to work. Public pre-K and community-based providers can coexist, she said, but the system needs to be designed around parents, who are children’s first teachers.

One example of how child care isn’t built for parents is the timing of programs. 

Johnson and Zelinska, the parents of Lilah, have to pick their daughter up at 2:15 p.m. on weekdays. Johnson’s workday ends at 5 p.m. Thankfully, Zelinska’s part-time job, which she picked up to help pay for child care, ends at 2 p.m. so she can pick up Lilah. 

They could spring for a late afternoon pick-up time — but it comes at a cost. An extra $150 every month. 

Johnson’s mind keeps going back to people who can’t afford child care. If his family can barely make it work, how can others? 

He has seen how his daughter has benefited. 

Lilah, though, is getting so much out of child care. As an only child, spending part of her day at the Montessori School gives her the socialization she needs.

Lilah is even learning Spanish at child care. Her program is bilingual and has a Spanish-speaking teacher.

At her age, all of this learning and exposure to new things is crucial for Lilah, Johnson said. 

“They develop so quickly at this age,” he said.

What are Child Care Associates legislative priorities?

Child Care Associates has three legislative priorities it adopted based on conversations from families, community-based child care providers, advocates and school officials. Child Care Associates sees the three priorities as key to building a strong early childhood system with access to all. Here are the priorities:

  1. Sustaining high-quality child care small businesses: Right-size the child care business model,including the child care subsidy system, to ensure the true costs of quality, including early educator wages, are adequately funded without raising costs to hardworking families
  2. Expanding choice for working parents: Enable eligible children of working parents to access public prekindergarten in the context of full-day, high-quality community-based child care. This includes removing unnecessary barriers to participating in the current pre-k partnership model, ensuring sufficient resources for community-based early learning programs to provide high-quality prekindergarten, and piloting new mixed-delivery models that do not require complex partnerships with local education agencies.
  3. Fortifying the child care educator workforce: Developing pathways for a sustainable, quality early educator workforce that honors and compensates educators for previous experience and existing expertise, provides equitable timelines and resources for child care educators to increase their credentials and advance in the profession, and achieve a self-sufficient wage similar to ISD educators with similar credentials.

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at 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....