Fort Worth mother Amanda Schulte Tacke’s $1,200 budget wasn’t enough for high-quality child care.
Meanwhile, child care center owner Tabitha Alford can’t afford to pay her workers a living wage.
They reflect the contradicting challenge of early childhood education, an industry plagued with low wages yet skyrocketing costs. The Catch-22 will be the topic of the Fort Worth Report’s next Candid Conversation on Aug. 16.
The Fort Worth Report’s next Candid Conversation focused on early childhood education. Kara Waddell, president and CEO of Child Care Associates, will moderate a panel discussion.
Panelists are Rose Bradshaw, CEO of North Texas Community Foundation; Shawneequa Blount, director of Child Care Innovation at Institute to Advance Child Care; Sara Redington, chief philanthropy officer of Miles Foundation; and Amber Scanlan, senior vice president and director of client and community relations at PNC Bank.
When: 7:30-9 a.m. Aug. 16. Complimentary breakfast starts at 7:30 a.m., and the program begins at 8 a.m.
Where: Nick and Lou Martin University Center, Texas Wesleyan University. 3165 E. Rosedale St. in Fort Worth.
Parking is free.
How: Save your seat here. Tickets are free, but registration is required.
Schulte Tacke says the child care conundrum affects more than just parents.
“If you have this whole workforce of parents who aren’t able to contribute to the community because they don’t have adequate child care, that’s a problem for a community,” Schulte Tacke said.
The problems in child care are dire, said Bethany Edwards, director of the Tarrant County nonprofit Early Learning Alliance. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the nation’s child care crisis and shone a light on the systemic issues in the industry, she said.
Ultimately, the issues affect women the most, Edwards said. Child care workers are predominantly women. When families can’t find quality care at an affordable price, mothers often leave their jobs to become the primary caregiver.
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 cost for an infant is $9,324, or $777 per month.
The price often makes child care out of reach for many low-income and middle-class families.
On the flip side, child care workers in Texas, though, earn an annual average wage of $25,910, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A family of four falls under the poverty line if it makes under $30,000, according to the federal government.
Solving child care won’t be easy. Edwards of the Early Childhood Alliance does not think the free market laws of supply and demand will ease costs. In fact, if prices met demand, child care would be too expensive and force parents to leave the workforce.
“That would be a disaster for our nationwide economy,” Edwards said. “And then the child care workforce would also go out of business because no one could afford it.”
‘It was a struggle’
Young children screamed with joy on a recent Thursday morning at King Kids Learning Center in east Fort Worth. Alford, the center’s owner, wouldn’t have it any other way.
She has been working in child care since she was 22. She has always had a passion for children and knew she would open her own child care center, she said.
In 2010, she opened King Kids Learning Center with a $5,500 income tax return check. And, in 2014, she opened her second center, My King’s Kids Academy.
“It was a struggle, but we are here,” Alford said.
Her centers withstood the pandemic. She didn’t shut down because the parents she serves needed child care to make ends meet at home.
Alford has grappled with how much she should charge parents. Her centers care for children as young as 6 weeks up to 4 years old. Parents pay roughly $900 a month — with a scholarship.
Alford looks for grants and other programs that can help her bottomline — as well as her staff and parents. Still, not much exists to help, she said.
The Texas Legislature needs to help and consider increasing state aid so smaller child care providers can be successful, Alford said.
Earlier this year, advocates hoped the Legislature would have started to overhaul how the child care system was funded. The legislative session ended with a proposed $2.3 billion boost for child care, but that was left out of the final budget.
Aflord compared operating a child care center to riding a roller coaster.
“Our enrollment could be down during the summer and then shoot back up when school starts. Every year, you never know if you’re going to be high or low — and that’s really month to month.”
Right now, Alford sees her business in the middle of trying to get up the proverbial hill on a roller coaster.
‘It was a necessity’
Schulte Tacke, a Fort Worth mother who works as an architect at Bennett Partners, pays $200 a week at the Center for Transforming Lives’ Rosie K. Mauk Child Development Center for her daughter’s child care.
But she found that center only after a difficult search. It checked all the right boxes: high quality, near her downtown office and a cost lower than what she originally budgeted, she said.
“Just being able to make sure your kid is being cared for so you can focus on your work is a huge, huge thing,” Schulte Tacke said.
Budgeting is important for Mackenzie Carolan, an executive at the Fort Worth-based construction company Linbeck Group. During her search for care for her son, she found providers that charged anywhere from $1,000 up to $1,500 a month.
The cost wasn’t as much of a hurdle for her, she said.
“Just finding a place to get in was my struggle,” Carolan said, adding the provider she picked was a good fit for her family.
Her son was born in July 2019. She needed to find child care for him by March 2020, which is when she expected him to be walking. Every center she visited didn’t have an opening until later that summer. She put him on five wait lists.
“Child care wasn’t an option. It was a necessity,” said Carolan, a single mother.
Quality child care is not a babysitting service. Proper care builds the foundation of learning for children, according to early childhood education experts.
At Alford’s centers, her teachers are laying the blocks for reading. Children listen and watch their teacher’s mouth as she reads.
The work of early childhood educators is especially important in Fort Worth, a city with lagging literacy rates. Fort Worth ISD, the city’s largest district, expects under only one in five third-grade students to be reading on grade level when 2023 results from the state standardized test are released later in August.
The issues in and around child care are complex and compound on top of each other. Finding a way to fix the industry depends on more than one person or organization, Carolan said.
For the past year, a blue ribbon committee of Tarrant County leaders has been working on policy solutions to turn the tide on child care. Mayors Mattie Parker of Fort Worth and Jim Ross of Arlington and then-Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley created the committee in late 2021.
The committee was tasked with directing $52 million in pandemic relief funds from the city of Fort Worth and the Tarrant County government. The money expires in 2026.
Greater public investment is needed to bring meaningful reform to child care, said Edwards, of the Early Learning Alliance.
“We’re not going to see any real change until there is substantial investment,” Edwards said. “In order for there to be public investment, there has to be a change in the way that we as a society — as a country — view early education, and it is a public good.”
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.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.