As we’ve shared throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the current public health crisis has shown that without child care, our families, our communities, and the economy cannot successfully function. And as many early childhood advocates and providers have continually shared, the pandemic has only exacerbated the challenges facing Kentucky’s child care workforce as a result of limited public investment.

According to a survey conducted in late 2020, following mandated shutdown of child care centers to protect the health of workers and families, about half of providers reported that they had to reduce hours of operation and decrease staff. About a third of licensed center directors reported there was staff turnover due to COVID-19 risks. And for decades, low compensation – in the form of wages and other benefits – for our early childhood workforce has been a major impediment to recruiting and retaining motivated and qualified professionals who can provide the high-quality care our children and families need.

It’s no mystery why it’s so difficult for providers to recruit and retain teachers, when considering the following:

It’s also a social justice issue, as our early childhood workforce is predominantly made up of women with higher proportions of immigrants and people of color.

Beyond wages, only a fraction of child care providers are able to offer their teachers benefits such as a retirement plan; disability, health, and dental insurance; paid sick leave; or discounts for the care of their own children. Kentucky also has minimal requirements for its child care educators though there have been recent efforts to increase the availability of scholarships for early childhood educators and increase pathways to professional development. However, without accompanying pay increases, teachers who acquire credentials have little incentive to stay in licensed child care settings, and many move on to Head Start and public preschool programs after completing their training.

The good news is that Kentucky is using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) stabilization funds to offer financial incentives to child care providers who raise wages for staff. Providers will also be getting a much needed increase in subsidy reimbursement rates for children who participate in the Child Care Assistance Program, which will also help cover increased wages. The state legislature allocated an additional $12 million in state general funds to support a $2/day increase in reimbursement rates starting July 1, 2021. Advocates are hopeful they will further increase reimbursement rates using ARPA funds.

Additionally, Kentucky is using ARPA funds to offer educator training focusing on supporting children with special needs and building director skills. And DCC is investing in an apprenticeship program that will connect teachers with mentors and cover costs for training, curriculum, and coaching.

In short, we are experiencing some powerful positive momentum and dramatic increases in awareness about the fundamental importance of child care to families, employers, and our economy. Policymakers across the political spectrum are beginning to understand how low compensation for our early childhood workforce perpetuates a broken system. The progress we have seen would not be possible without the infusion of federal funds through the American Rescue Plan, but we cannot stop here. We need a sustainable solution that recognizes the strains we place on our early childhood workforce by asking them to do so much for so little.

Advocates must be diligent in their efforts to sustain and build on this momentum by asking our members of Congress and the Kentucky General Assembly to continue to invest in child care.