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Gary Parker and Atia Thurman: Fragile early childhood education system at greater risk

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Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, nationwide nearly two-thirds of child care providers have closed, leaving working parents struggling to find reliable care. Without additional public funding, over 4 million child care providers across the United States are at risk of permanently closing. One recent survey, by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, found that almost a third of child care providers could not survive more than two weeks of closure. Only 11% could survive a closure for an indefinite period of time.

In Missouri, almost half of the child care providers are at risk, threatening to increase the already high rate of children per child care slot from 3.15 to 6.06. Illinois faces a similar post-pandemic reality if action is not taken soon.

Meanwhile, existing protections for small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program are insufficient to prevent many child care providers from closing their doors. Though the program is primarily intended to cover payroll, providers also need funding to cover critical expenses, such as extensive cleaning and sanitation services and additional resources for families.

This situation threatens to exacerbate existing racial disparities in child care access. Black-owned child care centers and providers in black or low-income communities are at greater risk of closing permanently than white-owned centers and providers in white or high-income communities. In large part, this is because black businesses owners experience significant disadvantages when navigating loan applications. For example, compared to white business owners, they are nearly three times as likely to be discouraged from applying for a loan and 20% more likely to be denied for a loan. As a result, businesses located in predominantly non-white or in low-income communities receive far fewer small business loans than businesses in predominantly white or high-income communities.

The equity gaps grow even greater in terms of high-quality care and education; fewer low-income families have access to such programs. These are programs that exceed licensing requirements and meet quality indicators, such as highly trained teachers and low teacher-to-child ratios. However, these high-quality programs usually come with a high price tag, and is not an affordable option for families of modest means, let alone those impacted by poverty.

High quality early childhood care and education offers many benefits that endure into adulthood. A recent report by the Clark-Fox Policy Institute finds that early childhood education is associated with higher college attendance rates, higher employment rates and improved health outcomes.

As more families come to depend on two working parents, quality, affordable child care is critical to sustaining the workforce. Parents with access to child care are more likely to participate in the workforce and experience higher job stability and productivity — outcomes that benefit us all. The combined closure of schools and child care providers could mean a $50 billion to $150 billion loss in productivity for the nation.

Many of the nation’s most essential workers are also among its lowest-paid. These workers rely on a diminishing network of providers for critical child care services. If we truly wish to support working families — during this pandemic and beyond — we must recognize that limited access to quality child care is one of the greatest obstacles.

Gary Parker is director of the Clark-Fox Policy Institute at Washington University’s Brown School. Atia Thurman is associate director of the Institute. Ellen Hutti, a master’s research fellow at the Institute, also contributed.


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