We don’t lack for crises these days, but one in particular affects North Carolina’s youngest citizens, their families and the people who care for them.

As the director of a child care center in Charlotte, the early education crisis hits home for me when I talk with families who are struggling to make their payments or who are looking to find quality care, when another good teacher leaves the profession, and when I can’t find qualified providers to fill our 10 open positions.

When I can’t find capable staff, it means that I can’t move the 150 children off our waiting list, each with parents who need child care to go work.

I am not alone. According to a survey of North Carolina child care providers by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, 82% are experiencing a staffing shortage. More than one-fifth of providers are considering leaving or closing their programs this year. That would be disastrous for North Carolina.

Prior to the pandemic, federal child care subsidies in North Carolina were available to only one out of every seven eligible children, and North Carolina as of July had a waiting list of more than 22,000 children. Building quality capacity sufficient to accommodate all of these children is difficult when providers are paid poverty-level wages, and programs like mine struggle to raise compensation because we can’t raise the already-unaffordable prices that parents pay for care.

Yet there are bright spots. Bipartisan support for Smart Start and NC Pre-K’s program – and MECK Pre-K here in Mecklenburg County – has helped build a foundation that has provided hundreds of thousands of children with quality educational opportunities before they enter kindergarten. Federal pandemic emergency relief funding is helping stabilize a child care system in crisis.

But the system we have is simply not enough when we are struggling to attract and retain qualified educators, to keep child care businesses open in the face of added health and safety costs, and to find enough spaces – especially for infants and toddlers – for parents to go to work and school, resting assured their child is in a high-quality early learning setting with educators who are competent and compensated for the skilled and valuable work they do.

North Carolina’s economy suffers when parents can’t find care for their children and need to make tough decisions about staying in the workforce. Industries all over the state are struggling to find workers, and investment in child care can help bring parents – particularly mothers – off the sidelines and into the economy.

Now is the time to act. There is help on the table in Washington, and we need our delegation to prioritize child care and early learning in the fight for North Carolina’s families. The American Families Plan, building on the Child Care for Working Families Act, offers critical relief for families by making substantial, sustainable and comprehensive investments in early childhood education and educators through funding for child care and preschool together.

The proposed investments build upon bipartisan support for the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which has been critical despite being so underfunded that subsidies don’t come close to reaching enough families nor paying for the true cost of care. In North Carolina, the subsidy pays $880 per month, which is not nearly enough to sustain the level of care needed for children to thrive, and the eligibility level is too low to reach families who need help affording it.

Best of all, the American Families Plan is advocating for families – not a one-size-fits-all model, but rather investments that support real choice between quality programs for parents to find the best fit for their children and their family’s needs among a diverse set of providers and settings. That is something that both Republicans and Democrats can get behind.

North Carolina has been a leader on child care and early education. But the moment we’re in demands something big and bold to help the workforce behind the workforce. Our representatives in Washington must show the rest of the country how a state can rally behind its children and prepare them for the future while shoring up its present economy.

Kristen Idacavage is the school director at Kids ‘R’ Kids of Charlotte.

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