Stabilizing the Child Care System

Op-ed by Senator Jennifer McClellan
Published by the Richmond Free Press

As the child of educators (including an early childhood educator) I have long understood the important foundation early childhood education provides.  As a policymaker, I have reviewed the vast body of scientific research that has established that 90 percent of brain development occurs before age 5 and understood the implications for school readiness and our educational system.  

As a mother, I have also seen this first hand. When my son started kindergarten in 2015, I asked his teacher how kindergarten had changed in the over 20 years she had been teaching. She noted that kindergarten used to be where the soft skills were taught: regulating emotions, playing well with others, manners. Now, kindergarten is all academic and she can tell on day one which students have had some formal early childhood education and which ones have not.  Early childhood education, and child care, is critical for helping children develop the mental, emotional, and social skills that will help provide the base for their lifelong learning abilities.

In short, the achievement gap begins at birth. 

As a working mother raised by a working mother, I have also seen first hand that child care and early learning is a critical component of a thriving workforce. 

 However, Virginia families are struggling to find affordable, quality child care and early childhood education. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginia faced a looming child care and early childhood education crisis as there were simply not enough providers to meet demand, and what was available was increasingly unaffordable. This was especially true for infant care. According to the Economic Policy Institute Virginia was ranked 41st in the country for infant child care affordability, putting a major strain on Virginia families and our economy. The pandemic has exacerbated this crisis as the child care industry teeters on the brink: Over 40% of Virginia’s child care providers closed during the pandemic – and nearly 1,000 remain closed. Thousands of workers remain without a paycheck and thousands of families are scrambling for a child care solution. This has sent a ripple effect throughout our economy, with women (particularly women of color) dropping out of the workforce at record rates. Indeed, a national study showed that Black and Latina women accounted for the most job losses in America in December.

Child care is an education issue and an economic issue. Virginia must build a child care and early learning system in a way that doesn’t just take us back to where we were on March 12th, but begins to address the inequities and problems that have existed in our system for far too long. 

To begin this process, I have introduced the Child Care Stabilization and Quality Care Act (SB 1316). This bill will provide much-needed support for Virginia’s child care providers, child care workers, and parents struggling due to COVID-19 in innovative ways that will make Virginia a leader in moving down the path of providing flexibility and stability to the child care sector.

First, the bill addresses staffing shortages and promotes flexibility for child care providers to hire new staff and use substitutes by allowing portable background checks. 

Second, the bill will help Virginia child care providers stay afloat by launching a new two-year pilot program creating flexibility in how federal subsidy dollars are used. Specifically, the pilot will adopt a funding model based on enrollment, not attendance in order to create more stable funding streams for child care providers, ensure greater child care access for low-income Virginians, and create stronger standards for quality child care. 

Lastly, this bill strengthens and supports the child care industry and workforce by charging the Department of Education and the School Readiness Committee to identify and analyze additional financing strategies that promote industry stability, program quality and improved and equitable compensation for early educators.

Child care is the vital infrastructure that keeps families, businesses, schools and communities running, and it is past time that we start treating the industry as an essential part of our communities.